Immigration Status: Do Hightstown Checks Go Too Far?

August 31, 2015
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NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent a letter to Hightstown Mayor Lawrence Quattrone (PDF) asking him to clarify Hightstown Police Department policy in light of remarks attributed to him in a Times of Trenton news story with the headline: Hightstown mayor: We are not a ‘sanctuary city.’

The story quoted the mayor saying, “If you get stopped for anything, [Hightstown police] will check your status … If you have wants or warrants against you, whether you’re a U.S. citizen, Latino, Greek, or Italian, your status will be checked and if there’s any problem, you will be turned over.”

A directive issued by the New Jersey Attorney General in 2007 instructs law enforcement officers to inquire about an individual’s immigration status only when arrested for indictable offenses or DUI offenses. A policy of routinely checking the immigration status of people stopped by police would be outside of that directive and raise serious civil rights concerns.

“Unnecessarily involving your officers in immigration enforcement undermines the public safety, rather than strengthening it,” the letter said.

The letter asks Quattrone to publicly clarify his statements; to make clear that Hightstown Police Department policies go no further in questioning individuals’ immigration status than is required by law; and to provide documentation of the department’s policies for dealing with immigrants or people thought to be immigrants.

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ACLU-NJ Demands Release of Officer Names in Shooting of Trenton Teen

August 20, 2015
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Letter Urges Attorney General to Provide Greater Details about the Shooting to the Family of Radazz Hearns, Trenton Community

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today sent a letter (PDF) to state Acting Attorney General John Hoffman urging the release of further information about the shooting of 14-year-old Radazz Hearns, including the names of the state trooper and Mercer County sheriff’s officer who were involved in the shooting in Trenton on August 7.

Hearns, who was shot seven times but survived the shooting, has been charged with aggravated assault; unlawful possession of a handgun; and possession of a defaced firearm. The unnamed police officers contend Hearns had a handgun, according to the Attorney General’s office. Witnesses dispute that account and say Hearns was unarmed and ran away from the officers.

Law enforcement officials have been less than forthcoming about further details of the shooting.

“Nearly two weeks after the incident, your office has provided scant information about the shooting to Radazz's family and the broader Trenton community,” said the letter signed by ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer, Legal Director Edward Barocas, and Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin.

“In a matter such as this, the growing number of unanswered questions and absence of transparency can serve to exacerbate any distrust and division between community members and law enforcement. Absent a specific, particularized, and credible threat to the safety of the officers or their families, parents should not be left to wonder who shot their child.”

The letter sites recognized best practices for police departments, including guidelines for releasing the names of the officers involved in a shooting within hours of the shooting.

The ACLU-NJ will continue to be in touch with community members and monitor events as the case proceeds.

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NJ Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition Applauds Reform Bill Signed into Law

August 17, 2015
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TRENTON -- Governor Christie’s signature of S2003/A4299 will implement significant and much needed reforms to New Jersey’s juvenile justice system. The bill, sponsored by Senators Nellie Pou and Raymond Lesniak, and Assembly Members Shavonda Sumter, Charles Mainor, Benjie Wimberly, and Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, recognizes the critical need for age-appropriate treatment and access to rehabilitation for juveniles who intersect with the criminal justice system. The new law:

“These reforms to the waiver laws are consistent with the substantial body of research establishing that adolescents’ developmental immaturity renders them less culpable than adults”

  • Raises the minimum age at which a child may be prosecuted as an adult from 14 to 15, narrows the list of offenses that can lead to prosecution as an adult, and amends the standard governing such decisions to reflect the continuing maturation of young people through their mid-twenties;
  • Requires due process, including representation by counsel, before a young person who is confined in a juvenile facility can be transferred to an adult prison; and
  • Eliminates the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in juvenile facilities and detention centers, and places time limits on the use of solitary confinement for reasons other than punishment, such as safety concerns.

The New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition is pursuing system-wide reforms of New Jersey’s juvenile justice system, including promoting alternatives to incarceration for youth and improving conditions of confinement for those who are incarcerated. Members of the Coalition’s Steering Committee include Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest at Lowenstein Sandler, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Rutgers Law School Children’s Justice Clinic in Camden and Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic in Newark.

Through legislative advocacy on this bill, as well as executive advocacy and litigation, the Coalition has sought to reform the process and circumstances under which youth may be placed in an adult prison, and to eliminate the practice of solitary confinement of juveniles. The Coalition applauds the extraordinary leadership of Senator Pou, who more than two years ago, began bringing together advocates (including members of the Coalition), retired judges, county prosecutors, the Attorney General's Office, and other stakeholders to discuss New Jersey’s juvenile justice system and how to improve it through these substantial reforms.

“The historic reforms to New Jersey's juvenile justice system just signed into law will make us fairer, smarter, and safer. While there remains more work to do, these changes are a significant step towards making the ‘justice’ in our juvenile justice system a reality,” says Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey.

“New Jersey will become the twenty-first state to prohibit the use of punitive solitary confinement by either law or practice, in line with a growing national trend. This is a first and significant step towards reducing the risk of serious harm to juveniles in secure facilities, but we still have a long way to go,” explains Natalie Kraner, Pro Bono Counsel at Lowenstein Sandler. “The new law’s data collection requirement is critical because it will afford transparency to the Juvenile Justice Commission’s continued use of solitary confinement and protect against an overbroad and prolonged use of non-punitive solitary confinement,” adds Kraner.

“Serving time in an adult facility has enormous and lifelong consequences,” remarks Laura Cohen, Director, Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers School of Law. In another important change, youth who have been waived for adult prosecution presumptively will be held in local juvenile detention centers, rather than county jails, while awaiting trial; similarly, any young person who is sentenced to a term of incarceration will be committed to the state's Juvenile Justice Commission until the age of 21 and may remain there beyond that time at the discretion of the Commission. “These reforms to the waiver laws are consistent with the substantial body of research establishing that adolescents’ developmental immaturity renders them less culpable than adults,” explains Cohen.

“While we agree that juveniles should be held accountable for their actions, we must treat juveniles who commit crimes differently than adults. These youth will return to their communities and we must equip them with the skills they need to stay out of trouble and mature into productive adults,” says Mary Cogan, Assistant Director, Advocates for Children of NJ.

“This legislation represents a much-needed paradigm shift in how New Jersey addresses juvenile delinquency issues," adds LaShawn Warren, Vice President and General Counsel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. "It moves the state closer to a rehabilitative model that appropriately factors in developmental considerations of youth and ensures progress toward racial fairness in the state juvenile justice system.”

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ACLU-NJ Cheers Signing of S2003, Juvenile Justice Reform Legislation

August 10, 2015
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Juvenile Justice

The following is attributable to Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey. The ACLU of New Jersey is a member of the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition.

The historic reforms to New Jersey's juvenile justice system signed into law today will make us fairer, smarter, and safer. Solitary confinement of juveniles is a practice that has no place in our state and should only be used as a very last resort. Collecting data on the use of solitary confinement and the practice of trying children as adults will only serve to improve our juvenile justice system. While there remains more work to do, these changes are a significant step towards making the "justice" in our juvenile justice system a reality. The ACLU of NJ thanks Senator Pou, Assemblywoman Sumter for their leadership, and Governor Christie for signing this legislation into law today.

Image: © Richard Ross, www.juvenile-in-justice.com

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ACLU-NJ Executive Director Testifies at U.S. Senate Hearing

August 4, 2015
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NEWARK – ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer is scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Oversight in Washington, DC, this morning from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.

Ofer’s testimony (PDF) will focus on the over-use of solitary confinement in federal and state prisons, reforms that federal prisons may implement to reduce their incarcerated populations, as well as the significant and successful effort going on in New Jersey to reduce prison populations.

Ofer will be part of a panel of witnesses that includes Charles E. Samuels, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; the Honorable Michael E. Horowitz, Inspector General of the Department of Justice; Jerome Dillard, Reentry Coordinator for Dane County, Wis.; and Piper Kerman, author of the best-selling book, Orange is the New Black. Ofer will testify at the invitation of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

The panel is expected to deliver first-hand accounts of the challenges facing the federal prison system as part of the hearing on oversight of the Bureau of Prisons.

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Issue: Prisons

ACLU-NJ Voices Concern on Body Camera Directive for Police

July 28, 2015
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Law Enforcement Body Cameras

NEWARK – Governor Chris Christie today announced an initiative to equip the New Jersey State Police with body-worn cameras, and provided state funding to help municipal police departments purchase the cameras. “The use of body-worn cameras will bolster trust and better provide for the safety and protection of residents and officers alike," Christie said.

The announcement included the release of a 24-page directive (PDF) to law enforcement from Attorney General John Hoffman that spells out policies and practices for the use of body-worn cameras.

Following is a statement attributable to Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, about the use of body-worn cameras and the law enforcement directive:

“The Attorney General directive released today on police use of body cameras falls short of what’s needed to create police accountability in New Jersey.

“While it contains some important safeguards, it fails to address those very concerns that have triggered the public’s desire for body cameras in the first place. The public will not have a right to access the kind of footage—whether it's the chokehold used on Eric Garner or the arrest of Sandra Bland—that has sparked a conversation on police abuses.

“The Christie administration missed an important opportunity to create strong police accountability tools while also protecting the privacy and First Amendment rights of New Jerseyans.

“We have real concerns about several specific, key points:

  • Many important police interactions with civilians will not be recorded, including routine street encounters.
  • Public access to the recordings is too restrictive. For example, the subject of a recording isn’t guaranteed access to the recording.
  • Recordings may be kept indefinitely. That raises concerns about privacy, as well as First Amendment protections.”

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NJ is Wrong in Defending Taxpayer Grants to Yeshiva, Seminary

July 21, 2015
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Nearly $11 million for Construction Awarded to Two Schools Raises Concern About Discrimination, Use of Public Funds to Support Religious Mission

NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey, the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State submitted written arguments (PDF) challenging New Jersey’s rationale for awarding more than $11 million in taxpayer funds to two higher education institutions dedicated to religious training and instruction.

NJ Attorney General John Hoffman defended the state grants to the Lakewood Yeshiva Beth Medrash Gohova and the Princeton Theological Seminary in a brief dated June 10, 2015, in the lawsuit ACLU-NJ v. Hendricks. Hoffman argued that the grants are for academic purposes – the construction of classrooms, a library and other capital improvements – not furtherance of religious teachings and, therefore, do not violate the state Constitution or the Law Against Discrimination.

“The Constitution does not allow the State to subsidize the training of clergy or other religious instruction, nor does it allow subsidizing discriminatory institutions. The proposed grants would do exactly these things,” said Edward Barocas, legal director of the ACLU-NJ.

Responding to the state’s defense, groups filed a brief characterizing the State’s arguments as “unavailing” and an attempt to undermine a 1978 NJ Supreme Court ruling that clearly bars the use of public funds for the maintenance or support of religious groups. The brief asks the state Appellate Court to recognize the violations of the Constitution and bar the state from awarding the tax-funded grants to the schools.

“Taxpayers must not be forced to fund divinity schools," said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “The court should strike down these grants.”

On April 29, 2013, following a competitive application process, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration released a list of 176 college construction projects to be funded with the proceeds from a voter-approved bond sale. The ACLU of NJ, ACLU and Americans United, went to court in June 2013 to challenge the funding under the state Constitution and the Law Against Discrimination.

“These grants flout important safeguards in the state Constitution,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to underwrite discrimination or the religious training of clergy.”

Background

Even though the New Jersey Constitution forbids taxpayer funds from supporting ministries or places of worship, the state awarded $10.6 million to Beth Medrash Govoha, an orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood, to build a new library and academic center. The state also awarded $645,323 to Princeton Theological Seminary for expansion and construction of classroom and study space.

Courses of study at both of these schools prepare students to serve as religious leaders or religious educators. The New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education’s website identifies each school as a “theological institution.” The Yeshiva does not admit women and its faculty is entirely male and Jewish. The seminary requires degree students to be Christian.

Lawsuit

The ACLU-NJ, ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State went to court in June 2013 to challenge the funding under the state constitution and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In their brief, the plaintiffs cited three violations of the state Constitution, which prohibits using taxpayer funds:

  • for the maintenance of any religion or ministry;
  • to subsidize or build facilities at which religious services or instruction will take place;
  • if such funding does not serve a public purpose.

Further, the brief cites the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), which prohibits any place of public accommodation from discriminating based on religion or sex.

Because governmental entities are public accommodations subject to the LAD, they are prohibited from providing special benefits to organizations that discriminate based on religion or sex. The proposed grants constitute special benefits to two institutions that do exactly that. The Seminary has a policy of allowing only Christians to become degree students, faculty, or board members. While it has no formal policy barring women or non-Jews, the Yeshiva’s entire faculty is Jewish and male and the student body is all male and believed to be all-Jewish.

The State’s Response

Hoffman’s response argued that the 176 grants included awards to 15 private institutions and that the stated public benefit -- to improve the quality and capacity of higher education in New Jersey -- is not measured by each grant but rather by the entirety of the program. The state also said the grants were for the benefit of education not religious instruction, because the assistance is meant for classrooms, libraries and other academic functions.

Further, the State argued that schools with religious affiliations are not barred from taxpayer assistance, such as police and fire services, and that the plaintiffs’ assertion that the grants are violations is an overly broad interpretation of the state Constitution and the NJ Supreme Court’s findings in the landmark case, Resnick v. East Brunswick Township Board of Education.

Finally, the state argued in its written brief, “Religious institutions are expressly exempt from the LAD,” and that the State should not be barred from giving funds or other special benefits to organizations that are permitted to discriminate because they are exempt from the law.

The Plaintiffs’ Reply

Despite the state’s claim that the grants were plentiful and wide-reaching, the awards were made competitively, at the discretion of the State Secretary of Higher Education, and nearly a third of the applications for funding were rejected.

While the NJ Constitution does not preclude the State from providing general services such as fire and police protection to religious organizations, it does foreclose direct “out-of-pocket” funding for sectarian religious instruction and the training of clergy.

While religious institutions may be exempt from the LAD and therefore permitted to engage in discrimination, a place of public accommodation covered by the law (including the NJ government) is not permitted to indirectly promote or support such discrimination by providing special benefits to such discriminatory groups. Here, the State is providing the two institutions a total of more than $10 million in discretionary taxpayer funds.

Oral argument in the case has not yet been scheduled.

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Port Authority Now Covered by Open Records Law

June 30, 2015
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Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Open Government

Governor Chris Christie late Monday signed legislation that for the first time requires the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey be subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law and the New Jersey Open Public Records Act. Christie signed the Senate concurrence of conditional vetoes he made in the original legislation, S2183/A3350. Christie’s signature comes six months after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed companion legislation, and it was necessary for the law to take effect.

The following statement about the legislation is attributable to ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas:

"This new law to make public records more open represents a positive step toward addressing significant and long-standing concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability at the Port Authority, deficiencies that were highlighted in the wake of the ‘Bridgegate’ lane-closure scandal. The law, which the ACLU-NJ supported, ensures that transparency protections will have the force of law and will provide a legal remedy to individuals when record requests are denied.

"While this law shines some disinfecting sunshine on the Port Authority, the work to transform this troubled bi-state agency is not done. The Port Authority is still left to its own devices regarding its public meetings. In order to make the agency more accountable, New Jersey and New York must enact a law that subjects the Port Authority to the same open meetings requirements that all state and local government bodies must follow, and individuals must be provided the right to challenge agency actions that violate those requirements."

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As Governor, Presidential Candidate Christie Earned Low Marks

June 30, 2015
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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

ACLU-NJ Report Card Reflects Poor Performance in First Term

NEWARK – As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie prepares to announce his candidacy today for president of the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) reissued its report card on his first term in office.

Christie earned a grade of D+ for his record on civil liberties and civil rights. Now into his second term, Christie not only continues his poor performance, but raises new concerns about his record on key matters of constitutional rights.

“As Americans begin to consider candidates for the presidency, it is vitally important that they are informed about their candidates’ records on constitutional rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We hope that this guide will help voters become more informed about Governor Christie’s stance on key civil liberties and civil rights issues.”

The ACLU-NJ report card graded Christie on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties matters: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice.

“Governor Christie’s record on civil liberties and civil rights has been a poor one,” said Ofer. “Some of his most frustrating moments have been those times when he paid lip service to the protection of rights but failed to back up words with actions. For gay and lesbian New Jerseyans seeking to marry, sick patients in need of medical marijuana, or New Jerseyans seeking to learn basic information about their state government, the Christie administration has been a failure.”

Christie’s lowest grades were in the areas of transparency, separation of church and state, and separation of powers. The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion. Following are some highlights (and lowlights).

  • Freedom of religion: Christie earned a solid B, his highest mark, particularly for his work to protect Muslim New Jerseyans from discrimination.
  • State involvement in religion: On the other end of the religion spectrum, Christie earned an F for giving away millions in state funds to two sectarian religious institutions that train clergy members.
  • Transparency: Christie earned a solid F for his record on transparency, despite campaigning in 2009 as the candidate who will bring accountability to Trenton. He fought against reforms to bring more transparency to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bi-state agency at the epicenter of the Bridgegate scandal, and his administration routinely denies basic open records requests that the courts later overturn.
  • Criminal justice and drug policy: Christie’s record is a mixed one, earning him a C. He supported reforming the state’s broken bail system, as well as adding oversight to police acquisition of military equipment. However, he has dragged his heels implementing medical marijuana and more recently opposed an effort to regulate and tax marijuana, saying that as president he would prosecute individuals in the four states that have legalized marijuana for personal use by adults. During his time in office, New Jersey has made more than 100,000 arrests for marijuana possession.
  • LGBT rights: Christie fought against marriage equality, ending his opposition only when it became clear he would lose in court, earning him a D.
  • Immigrants’ rights: Christie supported giving undocumented immigrants a chance at college by signing the New Jersey Dream Act, but vetoed an important provision to open the doors fully by allowing them to apply for state financial aid.
  • Women’s rights: Christie has a mixed record. He slashed funding for women’s family planning centers, which has forced at least six clinics to close or fire staff. He did, however, sign into law a bill that protects women from pregnancy discrimination, as well as several measures aimed at closing the wage gap between men and women.

Christie’s second-term has raised other civil liberties and rights concerns. He has opposed early, in-person voting, dismissing it as an attempt at voter fraud despite the lack of evidence to support such claims. And eight months ago his administration issued an order requiring the detention of medical workers returning from one of three West African countries where they treated Ebola patients, even if they were asymptomatic. The decision was widely criticized by the medical community following the detention of a nurse, Kaci Hickox, at Newark Liberty International Airport. In the face of public pressure, he eventually released Hickox.

Finally, Christie has repeatedly stated that the Patriot Act does not violate civil liberties, despite the fact that numerous federal courts have found provisions of the Act to be unconstitutional and to violate civil liberties.

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ACLU of New Jersey Statement on Clashes between Police and Concertgoers at MetLife Stadium

June 8, 2015
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The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:

Udi Ofer

“The incidents involving New Jersey police and concertgoers outside of the Summer Jam concert at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford last night raise serious questions about police practices. We are aware of reports of individuals throwing bottles at responding officers, but any time law enforcement deploy tear gas, sound cannons, armored personnel carriers and riot gear in a civilian context, civil liberties are put at risk and a closer look is required.

“The Attorney General’s office should appoint an independent investigator to determine and publicly report on what led to last night’s events, whether the event was properly managed and policed, how many injuries and arrests took place, and whether the tactics and force deployed by state troopers and potentially other law enforcement personnel were appropriate. The State Police should also release its Standard Operating Procedures for its deployment of the tactics and tools it used with concertgoers last night.

“The ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor information about last night’s incident as it becomes available.”

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