Policy Sparked by ACLU-NJ Suit Protects Right to Film Cops

January 19, 2017
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West New York’s policy, adopted at urging of ACLU-NJ, is one of the strongest protections of public’s right to film in U.S.

Cesar Sanchez was arrested for filming the West New York police in 2015. Now, because of him, West New York will adopt one of the country’s strongest policies to protect the right of the public to film the police.

The ACLU of New Jersey and the Town of West New York have announced an agreement under which the Town of West New York (West New York or Town) will institute policy that proactively affirms the right to photograph and record police. The policy specifies that individuals have the right in public and private settings to record the police, as long as their actions don’t interfere with police conduct. Photographing and recording alone, which are both common and lawful, do not constitute interference, the policy states. The new policy also sets up a system for supervision and training to implement the changes.

“It’s extremely gratifying that something so personally distressing, an unfair arrest, has ultimately paved the way for one of the strongest protections of people’s right to film police,” Sanchez said. “The tensions people face when exercising their individual rights to try to hold police accountable aren’t confined to West New York or New Jersey, but something felt by people all over the country.”

“I’m thankful that West New York’s policy will almost guarantee that no one in the Town will have their rights violated again just for filming the police,” Sanchez added. “That was the primary thing I was looking for in this suit: to ensure that people are free to exercise their rights without fearing jail time for it.”

The settlement came as the result of a suit alleging that Sanchez was unlawfully arrested. In July 2015 on his way home from work, Sanchez saw police forcefully arresting two teenagers. Sanchez pulled out his phone and planned to record, and the officers told him to put his phone away. Declining at first, he eventually complied. But when the police asked for identification, he refused, explaining that it was his legal right not to present ID.

“Cellphone cameras have become an essential tool for holding police accountable to the public they serve and protect,” said ACLU-NJ attorney Rebecca Livengood, who represents Sanchez. “West New York has acted admirably in adopting a policy that promotes transparency in police conduct and respect between police and the public.”

The police arrested Sanchez in retaliation for filming the scene and for declining to show his identification despite the police’s lack of justification to request it — both of which are legal. The municipal prosecutor dropped the charges against Sanchez, and then the ACLU-NJ sued in hopes that West New York would change its policy to reflect the fact that the First Amendment allows people to film the police unobtrusively.

West New York Mayor Felix Roque, M.D., expressed that the adoption of this policy greatly benefits the citizens of West New York as well as the members of the Police Department who serve them. “Once the governing body became aware of the lawsuit filed by the ACLU it worked quickly to develop a policy to publicly clarify the rights of citizens to film police activity as well as to ensure law enforcement can perform its duties without unlawful interference. The policy which has already been incorporated into the police manual carefully balances First Amendment Rights and police investigative needs,” Mayor Roque said.

Last year, the ACLU of New Jersey released Mobile Justice, a smartphone app available on Apple and Android devices that allows users to record police interactions and send them to the ACLU to monitor for possible rights violations. The app also informs users of their rights when interacting with police.

The settlement agreement in the case, in which West New York makes no admission of liability, captioned Sanchez v. Town of West New York (PDF), was filed today in Hudson County Superior Court. Mobile Justice is available for free on Android and Apple iOS platforms.

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Incarcerated Students with Disabilities Sue New Jersey Over Denial of Education

January 11, 2017
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Youth with Disabilities in Adult Prisons Entitled to Special Education, Law Suit Contends

Newark, NJ – Adult prisons in New Jersey routinely violate the rights of high school students with disabilities by denying them education, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today. Some students in these prisons receive no education whatsoever, while for others, education consists of receiving worksheets while they sit in a cage in the center of a solitary confinement unit.

In the wake of Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a bill that would have restricted the use of solitary confinement for vulnerable populations, attorneys from Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and Proskauer Rose LLP are suing the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) and the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) for failing to provide education throughout the prison system, including to students held in solitary confinement.

“Whether in a cage or a classroom, NJDOC has failed and continues to fail youth with disabilities, utterly ignoring a key component of rehabilitation: a meaningful education,” said Mary-Lee Smith, Director of Litigation at Disability Rights Advocates. “Youth with disabilities do not check their civil rights at the door of adult prison facilities.”

Experts estimate that as many as 70% of young people in adult prisons require special education services, and federal and state laws are clear: students with disabilities incarcerated in adult prisons are entitled to special education through the age of 21. About 800 young people in NJDOC custody are currently 21 and under, but NJDOC ignores its obligation to provide special education services to those who are eligible.

“It is shocking that a state prison system would ignore the needs of students with disabilities, a group that is disproportionately represented in the prison system and could benefit so dramatically from the services the law entitles them to,” said Jeanne LoCicero, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “We estimate that hundreds of incarcerated students are being denied their right to an education.”

“This lawsuit seeks to vindicate the rights of an incredibly vulnerable population: youth with disabilities in adult prison facilities,” said Bill Silverman, a former federal prosecutor and the partner at Proskauer responsible for leading pro bono efforts. “We intend to enforce the law.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and three incarcerated students, referred to in the lawsuit as Adam X., Brian Y. and Casey Z., who have been denied special education services by NJDOC:

  • Adam X. has spent over 150 days in solitary confinement receiving virtually no education services, let alone special education. He entered NJDOC custody at age 18 and has a diagnosis of ADHD, but NJDOC has never investigated whether solitary confinement exacerbates his ADHD or whether his behavior resulted from his disability.
  • Brian Y. has spent 180 days in solitary confinement – at first he received no education services, but eventually NJDOC gave him worksheets to complete while in a cage in the middle of the unit. He entered NJDOC custody before he turned 18 and has been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, impulse control disorder, and ADHD, but NJDOC has never tested him for special education, despite being legally obligated to do so. Now at the age of 19, Brian Y. has missed out on years of special education services while locked in adult correctional facilities. As with Adam X., NJDOC has never investigated whether administrative segregation worsens Brian’s disabilities or whether his prior behavior resulted from his disabilities.
  • Casey Z. has been in special education for most of his life but has received no special education services at all since entering NJDOC custody 17 months ago at age 19. NJDOC officials tried to excuse this failure by claming Casey’s sentence is “too long” for him to receive special education services, but federal law makes no such exceptions.

“There is no system in place at New Jersey’s adult correctional facilities to provide students with disabilities the services they need,” said Rebecca Livengood, ACLU-NJ Skadden Fellow. “Youth with disabilities in adult prison facilities can no longer be overlooked; this lawsuit will ensure that.”

The lawsuit also charges that the NJDOE has failed to monitor and ensure that the NJDOC was providing special education and related services in compliance with federal and state law.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. A copy of the Complaint is available at https://www.aclu-nj.org/download_file/2077

NJ Supreme Court: Kids Can’t Routinely Receive De Facto Life Sentences

January 11, 2017
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Decision marks a historic major step forward for criminal justice rights of juveniles and movement to end mass incarceration in NJ

The New Jersey Supreme Court today ruled in two juvenile justice cases that children convicted of crimes cannot be sentenced to de facto life sentences without the possibility of parole without carefully considering the role their youth played in their crimes. ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom, along with Gibbons P.C. Criminal Defense Chair and Pro Bono Director Larry Lustberg and Gibbons Fellow Avram Frey, represented James Comer. Comer, currently in his 30s, will now have an opportunity to argue for his resentencing. Previously he was only eligible for a parole hearing at age 86, at the end of his natural life span.

Alexander Shalom The following statement can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom who represented Comer:

“We are thrilled that the New Jersey Supreme Court recognized that routinely condemning children to die in prison is unconstitutional, no matter what we call it. Children are different from adults and our criminal justice system needs to fully take those differences into account.

“This decision is a watershed moment for the rights of juveniles nationally and an important step in ending mass incarceration in New Jersey. These two men who were sentenced as teenagers will now be able to go before a judge and argue for their release before they’ve become old men. This decision is the latest development in a nationwide movement recognizing that in the justice system, children are different from adults, and that movement is only gaining more momentum.

“The opinion affirms the fact that a life sentence by another name is still a life sentence. The Court has taken an important first step by ordering resentencing hearings for these clients. But there is more work to be done and we will be calling on the Legislature to take action to ensure that no juvenile in New Jersey is unconstitutionally sentenced.”

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ACLU-NJ & Rights Groups to Council on Mandates: Keep Historic Bail Reform Intact

December 21, 2016
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ACLU-NJ, Drug Policy Alliance, Latino Action Network, NJ NAACP & NJ Institute for Social Justice Submit Brief to Preserve Bail Reform

New Jersey-based civil rights and policy organizations submitted a friend of the court brief to the Council on Local Mandates on Dec. 21 arguing that a civil rights measure to reform bail set to go into effect on Jan. 1 should proceed undisturbed.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Drug Policy Alliance, Latino Action Network, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice — all designated by law to serve on the Pretrial Services Program Review Commission for the 2014 Criminal Justice Reform Act — jointly filed a brief (PDF) in support of the New Jersey Attorney General’s motion to dismiss a complaint (PDF) filed by the New Jersey Association of Counties.

In a complaint filed on Dec. 6, less than a month before the historic reforms are set to take effect, a group of New Jersey counties argued that they would be forced to bear unfunded costs as a result of two provisions of the law. The law shifts New Jersey from a money-based system of bail to a risk-based one, and it added speedy trial protections to ensure no one languished in jail unnecessarily. The counties point to two provisions of the law that they claim have unknown cost impacts: the law’s retraction of the current 72-hour window standard for court appearances to a 48-hour window for risk-assessment and a court appearance, and the staff requirements to enforce speedy-trial provisions.

The five civil rights organizations that submitted the Dec. 21 filing demonstrate in their brief that because the Criminal Justice Reform Act implements provisions of the New Jersey Constitution dealing with bail and speedy trial, the Council on Local Mandates must determine that it is not an unfunded mandate.

The bail reform measure comprises two parts: a constitutional amendment affirmed by the voters of New Jersey and legislation signed by Governor Christie that implements the amendment and the speedy trial guarantees already in the State Constitution. All five organizations submitting the brief support the reforms, which they believe will help reduce unfairness and discrimination present in the current bail system.

The brief points out that the counties’ assertions about cost are speculative. They fail to consider cost-free alternatives and ignore the significant savings that counties will realize from reduced jail populations, the brief argued.

Alexander ShalomThe following statement regarding the counties’ complaint before the Council on Local Mandates can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom:

“More than two years ago, the Legislature approved a powerful law to give meaning to important constitutional protections that were not being observed on their own. It was widely understood then – and remains understood today – that if properly implemented, the bail reform law would help alleviate the burden and inequity of mass incarceration in New Jersey. These civil rights gains will also in turn save counties significant sums of money.

“The Association of Counties has ignored the reality of these civil rights gains and cost savings, focusing only on portions of the statute and speculating wildly about costs, in seeking to halt this historic reform. Fortunately, the Council on Local Mandates has historically avoided striking down laws that implement constitutional provisions, and we hope the council continues to honor that constitutional requirement by leaving the bail reform law untouched.

“We are optimistic that the council will follow the law and determine that the Criminal Justice Reform Act is beyond the council’s purview in the first place, and that even if it weren’t, that this law is not an unfunded mandate. That decision from the council will once and for all allow New Jersey to move forward with this critical step in making its criminal justice system fairer and more just.”

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More Than 1,000 in NJ in Solitary Confinement

December 16, 2016
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1,300 were in forms of solitary confinement each day in NJ, counter to Governor’s insistence that solitary doesn’t exist

More than 1,300 prisoners were in solitary confinement on any given day in New Jersey’s prisons and jails as recently as last December, according to data released for the first time by human rights advocates. The release of these data, gathered by Students for Prison Education and Reform: Princeton (SPEAR), Solitary Watch, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, previews a solitary confinement report to be issued in 2017.

The release of this information, first published by The Marshall Project, comes on the heels of Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a bill that would have dramatically reformed solitary confinement in the state.

Christie’s statement accompanying his veto of S51, which would have allowed solitary confinement only as a last resort, repeated his administration’s claim that solitary confinement does not exist in our state, despite overwhelming evidence that it is used routinely, including as a form of discipline.

“The Department of Corrections’ historical secrecy in its operation of solitary confinement units has allowed prison officials and politicians to misrepresent and obscure their unethical use with near-impunity,” said Daniel Teehan, Vice President of SPEAR and main author of the Marshall Project article. “These preliminary findings allow us to call out this deception for what it is, and to do so in a way that is substantiated by the state’s own data.”

According to that data – which draws from daily averages in December 2015 – 80 percent of the roughly 1,300 people in restricted housing units – another term for solitary confinement – were found in either administrative segregation or the Management Control Unit, a form of solitary confinement regularly used at administrators' discretion.

The prisoners in those units stayed there for extended periods of time, the data found; 92 percent of those in administrative segregation had been there for 30 days or longer. The United Nations considers a sentence of 15 days or longer to be torture. The research also found that 409 prisoners were in solitary confinement for longer than six months, and 137 were in solitary confinement for longer than a year.

“If signed into law, the bill would have made New Jersey a leader in solitary confinement reform,” said Jean Casella, Co-Director of the national watchdog group Solitary Watch. “Instead, it now lags behind at least a dozen states that have made significant reductions in their solitary populations, including California, Colorado, and New York.”

Prison-wide Department of Corrections (DOC) communications (PDF) from fall 2015 uncovered in the report’s research discuss sections of New Jersey administrative code that explicitly put forth dozens of categories of infractions for which administrative segregation, a term for solitary confinement, is given as a disciplinary sanction.

These data directly contradict Christie’s assertion that segregation units were used “primarily” for medical or safety-related reasons, an erroneous argument his veto statement made to refute the demonstrable fact that isolation is used as a disciplinary measure.

The data released this week were gathered from internal New Jersey Department of Corrections reports prepared for the Christie administration in 2015, providing a snapshot in time regarding prison and jail conditions across the state. The data, never before made public, were first obtained by SPEAR under New Jersey’s public records laws.

“The overwhelming harms of solitary confinement make the practice little more than cruelty for cruelty’s sake,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “These data are extremely sobering, and they show a deep crisis in the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement in our state. Solitary confinement exists in New Jersey, and we’ve seen that it’s used routinely instead of as a last resort, to the detriment of people’s mental health, human rights, and safety.”

Solitary confinement is defined as isolation of people in closed cells for 22-24 hours a day, alone or with another person, virtually free of human contact for periods of time ranging from days to decades.

Christie’s veto comes at a time of increased attention to solitary confinement nationwide. Last month, the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School jointly released a comprehensive report (PDF) showing that last fall across the U.S., the median percentage of the prison population held in restricted housing was 5.1 percent. By contrast, the new data show that 6.9 percent of all people — including 7.5 percent of women — in New Jersey prisons were in restricted housing in December 2015.

The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, passed by both houses of the New Jersey Legislature following the Assembly’s vote in October, would have placed new limits on the use and duration of solitary confinement and excluded certain vulnerable populations — such as children, pregnant women, and people with mental illnesses — from being placed in isolation. Solitary confinement is known to worsen mental illness, and it can even cause it in prisoners who were healthy when they entered solitary. The legislation also called for increased rehabilitation and oversight in the New Jersey prison system.

The full report on New Jersey’s use of solitary confinement will be released in early 2017. The Department of Corrections memo (PDF) describing the range of time in solitary confinement for various infractions can be read online.

Christie Tramples Human Rights with Veto of Solitary Confinement Reforms

December 5, 2016
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Veto means most vulnerable people in NJ’s prisons and jails will suffer, and jeopardizes safety

The ACLU-NJ strongly criticized Christie’s veto of S51, legislation that would have stopped the abuse of solitary confinement. He announced his veto through a statement (PDF) that mischaracterized what the bill would have done and revealed a lack of understanding of how solitary confinement is used in New Jersey.

Solitary confinement is defined as being held in a cell or enclosed space for 22 hours a day or longer, either alone or with another inmate, with severely restricted activity, movement and social interaction.

This bill: 

  • Banned solitary confinement for the most vulnerable populations, including children, people who have mental illnesses, pregnant women, and people with various disabilities.
  • Prohibited solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or 20 days in a 60-day period.
  • Required medical clearance and daily evaluations for prisoners in solitary confinement.

Alex ShalomThe following statement is from ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom:

“Today, Governor Christie used his office to perpetrate an injustice rather than end one. Christie chose to make the most vulnerable people in our prisons and jails continue to suffer for no good reason, and he chose to make all of us, including corrections officers, less safe.

“Christie’s veto of solitary confinement reform means that on any given day hundreds of New Jersey inmates, if not thousands, will be punished through a practice widely considered torture, and for no one’s benefit.

“The Department of Corrections covers its eyes to the reality of solitary confinement, and Christie helps pass out the blindfolds. They continue to peddle their fiction that solitary confinement does not exist in New Jersey, but we have a simple message: Facts still matter, Governor Christie. In prisons and jails throughout New Jersey, people continue to suffer from solitary confinement every day, no matter what you call it.

“The broad coalition of supporters of the bill worked with county jail wardens, corrections officers’ unions, and mental health experts to ensure that the bill represented best practices in the corrections field. The Christie Administration, however, blinded itself to reality and refused to answer even the most basic questions.

“We have no doubt that New Jersey will put this barbaric practice behind it soon. Meanwhile, thanks to the Governor’s callous veto, countless New Jerseyans will continue to suffer under his watch.”

In August, the ACLU-NJ won a case on behalf of a prisoner, Rigoberto Mejia, a mentally ill prisoner who had been sentenced to nearly three years of solitary confinement. The decision (PDF) in the case excoriated the Department of Corrections for its treatment of Mejia and its violations of its own regulations. The judge also pointed to obvious holes in the claim that solitary confinement does not exist in New Jersey and lambasted the DOC’s mental health screening standards: The DOC performed a cursory mental health screening through a locked cell door in English. For example, during Mejia’s time in solitary confinement, the DOC concluded from his silence during questioning — while behind a wall with a closed door, and under a bed sheet, with no one able to see his face — that he did not need mental health services.

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ACLU-NJ Settles with 5 Districts Whose Forms Hindered Immigrant Students

November 21, 2016
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Schools’ forms violated students’ civil rights despite nearly 10 years of warnings about unconstitutionality

The ACLU-NJ has settled all five lawsuits filed against four districts and a charter school whose published registration information hindered enrollment of immigrant students. The districts and charter school had required parents to produce identification that someone without a Social Security number or valid immigration status cannot obtain.

The ACLU-NJ on October 17 sued Fair Lawn School District in Bergen County, Jersey City Global Charter School in Hudson County, Jamesburg School District and Spotswood School District in Middlesex County, and Port Republic School District in Atlantic County. While there was no evidence that any of the schools had turned away immigrant students, the law is clear that such registration requirements are impermissible because they may prevent students from even attempting to register.

In each case, officials agreed to remove the offending requirement from its forms, to clarify on registration information that documents revealing immigration status will not be required, and to reimburse the ACLU-NJ for the filing fees associated with the lawsuits.

“The ACLU of New Jersey is grateful that the districts recognized the clarity of the law on this issue and quickly settled all of the cases,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “But registration issues persist throughout the state. The Department of Education must assume responsibility for auditing districts’ compliance with laws resigned to ensure fair access to education for all New Jerseyans.”

Pivotal Police Accountability Case Argued at NJ Supreme Court

November 9, 2016
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ACLU-NJ urges access to footage and reports related to fatal shooting by police 

The ACLU-NJ made arguments for police accountability in North Jersey Media Group v. Lyndhurst, a pivotal case at the New Jersey Supreme Court case that could determine the future of police transparency in New Jersey.

Along with North Jersey Media Group’s attorneys and other transparency advocates, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom argued that upholding a lower court’s ruling in the case could potentially shield basic information about police actions from the public unless the police choose to share it.

“Community trust in police, which is hard to gain and difficult to maintain, will disappear if police executives become the gatekeepers of public records,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “The role of police in society demands more transparency, not less.”

This case concerns records – including dashboard camera footage and police ”use of force” reports – related to the 2014 police shooting of Kashad Ashford.

“New Jersey officials have already used the lower court ruling to justify cloaking the police in secrecy,” said ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg. “Police transparency in New Jersey hangs in the balance in this case, a time when transparency could not be more urgent.”

It is especially important amid dozens of high-profile police killings, and in particular killings of people of color, captured on film in recent years. Such incidents around the country have led to calls for police body cameras with public access to the footage as a tool for police accountability. This case could threaten to prevent the public of New Jersey from accessing dashcam or bodycam footage and other materials, canceling out any gains in transparency.

The ACLU-NJ’s friend-of-the-court brief was also filed on behalf of eight other civil rights organizations: the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, Black Lives Matter - New Jersey, Garden State Bar Association, Garden State Equality, Latino Action Network, Latino Leadership Alliance, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and People’s Organization for Progress. The brief contended that our state’s transparency law dictates that the public should have access to the records sought by North Jersey Media Group.

“New Jersey communities must have access to basic information to hold police accountable for the actions they take as agents of our government,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “We grant police extraordinary power, including the power to take a life. In exchange, law enforcement has an obligation to let the public understand the actions taken to protect and serve.”

Read the ACLU-NJ’s Supreme Court brief in North Jersey Media Group v. Lyndhurst. (PDF)

Man Jailed for Not Immediately Paying Ticket Deserves Justice

October 27, 2016
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Burlington court's actions amounted to modern-day debtors' prison

Burlington Township Municipal Court acted akin to a modern-day debtors’ prison when it ordered a man to serve jail time because he could not immediately pay court costs, said a federal lawsuit (PDF) the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey joined yesterday.

The lawsuit, initially filed in 2015, charges that the municipal court violated the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions by depriving Anthony Kneisser, and likely others who came before the court, of due process and discriminating against him based on income.

Kneisser, a 20-year-old student and part-time line cook earning $9 an hour at the time, was ticketed for flicking a cigarette butt out of his car in 2014. Unable to pay the $239 he owed, he went to municipal court to try to set up a payment plan or arrange community service. The judge refused and ordered Kneisser to call people he knew for money. Kneisser told the judge he didn’t have anyone to call, and he was sentenced to five days in jail. Officials immediately handcuffed him and placed him under arrest.

“It was humiliating to be treated like a criminal just for being broke,” Kneisser said. “I couldn’t believe I was being sentenced to jail for not being able to pay a ticket for littering. Some people in the courtroom gasped, and others laughed at the idea of being jailed over a $200 littering ticket. At my job at the time, $200 was one week’s pay. I filed this suit to get justice, not just for myself, but to make sure that no one else has to go through what I went through, or worse, for being broke.”

Kneisser immediately thought about what would happen to his dog, who would have been left alone for five days. Kneisser feared for his job if he had to miss several days without notice. In the holding cell, Kneisser wasn’t allowed to use the phone at first and worried about how he would explain to his mother, whose car he had borrowed, where her vehicle was.

Fortunately, Kneisser’s family was able to bail him out. Earlier, his father had told him he couldn’t help pay the ticket and suggested he go to court to try to set up a payment plan instead. But once Anthony faced the prospect of jail, his father realized the situation had gotten more urgent.

“It’s unconstitutional for a municipal court to send someone to jail — to rip someone from their job, their family, and their everyday life — for not being able to pay a fine. The court’s actions amount to a modern-day debtors’ prison,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, one of the attorneys representing Kneisser. “Municipal courts should take a person’s ability to pay into account and make sure no one goes to jail without first having access to a lawyer.”

The ACLU-NJ has reason to believe that he is not the only low-income New Jerseyan who has been jailed for not having money to pay court fines.

“The six million cases before municipal courts each year in New Jersey routinely end in hefty fines and jail time,” says ACLU-NJ Legal Fellow Alexi Velez, who is spending a year studying the role of municipal courts in the criminalization of poverty through a grant from the Maida Fellowship Program at Rutgers Law School. “When people cannot afford to pay the fines and fees courts impose, the snowballing debts can quickly become insurmountable and risk of jail time increases. The role of these courts as revenue generators and debt collectors can undermine their purpose and challenge their integrity.”

More than 30 years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that jailing people because of inability to pay court fines and fees is an affront to American values and the Constitution. In that 1983 case, the court made a distinction between unwillingness to pay and inability to pay. Federal law has banned debtors’ prisons since 1833.

“A person’s freedom should not be conditioned on money they do not have,” said Marguerite Kneisser of the law firm Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle & Sacks, LLC, who initiated the lawsuit and serves as co-counsel with the ACLU-NJ. She is Anthony Kneisser’s sister. “What happened to Anthony erodes public faith in our democratic institutions and goes against what our Constitution stands for.”

Kneisser filed the civil rights lawsuit in September 2015 in United States District Court. The docket number is 1:15-cv-07043.

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U.S. District Court Complaint (PDF)

Middletown Rally Sends Message Chilling Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

October 21, 2016
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In advance of a rally planned by police at Middletown High School South as a tribute to law enforcement, military personnel, and first responders in symbolic opposition to Colin Kaepernick’s protests against oppression of people of color, the ACLU-NJ, the Central Jersey Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Greater Long Branch NAACP sent a letter (PDF) to school officials expressing civil rights and civil liberties concerns. The rally is planned for Friday Oct 21, at 6:30 p.m., before the Middletown High School South vs. Toms River High School North Asbury Park Press football game between the two top-ranked teams on the Jersey Shore.

The event has been expected to include over 100 uniformed personnel, bands from across the state, and a flyover by the New Jersey State Police Aviation Unit.

The Constitution and New Jersey law does not compel anyone — athletes or otherwise — to participate in this rally. The ACLU-NJ provides information to inform members of the public of your right to protest, your rights with police, and the rights of students with regard to police in a school setting (PDF).

Representatives from the ACLU-NJ and Central New Jersey Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives issue the following statements.

Dianna HouenouThe following quotes can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou:

“Communities across New Jersey often recognize the contributions of law enforcement and first responders, but these recognitions should not have the effect of intimidating people with views on systemic racism and social justice. It is a disservice to students and players that an event that should focus on them, their families, and their communities is being used to send a message that people who express concerns about disparities in the criminal justice system are unwelcome, disloyal or unpatriotic.

“Defending the right to protest is more than a symbolic gesture — it means accepting the lawful expression of free speech, even if others disagree with the content. The police have a duty to defend the rights of protesters, not to use such a large-scale display of force that effectively silences people with differing viewpoints.

“The idea that patriotism requires suppression of criticism violates the very ideals that define our country at its best. And indeed, efforts to criticize voices that demand justice and equality speak to the impulses of our country at its worst.

“The criticism the deputy police chief expressed for people who decline to stand for the national anthem in protest serves to erect walls between police and the communities they serve. The people police are sworn to protect and serve should not have to fear that the value officers assign to them is determined by the beliefs they hold.”

Jasmine CrenshawThe following quotes can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Organizer Jasmine Crenshaw:

“We were disturbed to learn that this rally was a deliberate response to the calls of NFL player Colin Kaepernick and others for the just treatment of people of color amid systemic racism and police violence. Middletown’s deputy police chief said he wants to use high school athletes to send a message to professional athletes that everyone should stand up for the national anthem. However, people should be free to express their own opinions about the national anthem and what it stands for, and they should not feel coerced into acting on someone else’s beliefs or ostracized if they refuse to.

“The statements made by the deputy police chief and the event’s ostentatious show of power send an ominous, frightening message: that, as an official stance, law enforcement will not tolerate expressions acknowledging our nation’s history of unequal treatment and systematic oppression.

“Entrance to one of the biggest sporting events in the area should not require that someone accept an atmosphere that suppresses political protest. The magnitude of this event chills the belief that police should be held accountable when they abuse their power or discriminate against people of color, and pressures student athletes to act as props of the police.”

Eugene M. StewartThe following quote can be attributed to Eugene M. Stewart, President of the Central New Jersey Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives:

“Sworn law enforcement officers undertake an oath swearing to uphold the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment and the protection of freedom of speech are a part of that Constitution. Counter to that oath, if what has been written about the event tonight in the Asbury Park Press is accurate, there will be law enforcement officers, in uniform, participating in a counter-protest to a protected right of the U.S. Constitution. This contradicts that constitutional oath, and it’s inappropriate for a State Police helicopter and other taxpayer-funded state resources to support this event.

“As NOBLE, we stand steadfast in support of the men and women who don the uniform in service and wear the badge of courage and integrity each and every day. It is with that same resolve we stand to ensure even if we do not personally agree with the actions of an individual, we respect the right of said individual and as sworn, we will protect the right of that individual or group of individuals.”

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