Newark – The ACLU of New Jersey applauded a move taken by administration of Glenview Elementary School in Haddon Heights to stop the practice of adding “God bless America” during the Pledge of Allegiance recited during daily morning assembly. The ACLU-NJ sent a letter to the school district (PDF) on December 30, 2015, explaining that invoking a blessing from God at the beginning of each school day violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which calls for no government sponsorship of religion.
“Our constitution is clear: schools can't coerce or impose religion on children,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “It’s the job of parents to decide how and whether to instill religion, not public schools. There is a special concern when it involves students at such an impressionable age, including kindergartners. It gives some children an uncomfortable choice between opting out and risking the status of pariah, or troublemaker, or participating in a group exercise that pressures them into voicing beliefs that may run counter to their own and their parents.”
Students at the school, which houses children between kindergarten and sixth grade, have stood at attention lined up by grade to recite the phrase “God bless America” immediately following the Pledge of Allegiance for about 14 years. The Constitution prohibits not only public institutions from favoring one religion above another, but also from favoring religion over non-religion. The United States Supreme Court has rejected a practice of invoking God’s blessing as a daily ritual.
“Students have the right to engage in speech, including religious speech, on their own time at school, and the ACLU-NJ has defended students’ religious speech in the past,” Barocas said.
“The fact that the phrase has some patriotic overtones does not cancel out the fundamentally religious nature of the words recited every morning in unison at the school, led by teachers and administrators,” added Barocas. “The school should focus its efforts on academics and the enrichment of children, not the debate over whether to add a religious blessing to the end of the Pledge of Allegiance.”
The ACLU of New Jersey has filed a lawsuit (PDF) against the West New York Police Department on behalf of a man who was arrested in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech after filming police officers arresting two teenagers.
The ACLU-NJ is challenging Cesar Sanchez’s arrest on charges of obstructing the administration of law based on Sanchez’s filming of the police and his refusal to provide identification. The First Amendment allows people to film the police unobtrusively. The municipal prosecutor in West New York has already dropped the charges against Sanchez, having determined that no probable cause existed to justify the arrest.
“It’s a strange experience to expect to spend an evening at home after work and instead wind up in jail, all for doing something that the Constitution protects,” said Sanchez. “I’m filing this lawsuit so no one else in West New York has their freedom taken away for exercising their First Amendment right to film the police to begin with.”
When Sanchez, a West New York resident, saw police forcefully arresting two teenagers on his way home from work in July, he pointed his cellphone camera and hit record. The officers unlawfully ordered him to put away his phone. He initially demurred but complied when one of the officers approached him. However, when the police asked for identification, he opted to exercise his legal right to refuse. The police then arrested him, in retaliation for filming the scene lawfully and for declining to show his identification despite the police’s lack of justification to request it.
The lawsuit explains that West New York has a duty to create affirmative policies allowing filming of police and to properly train its officers that filming the police in public is a legal, constitutionally protected activity. Sanchez has asked in his filing for the town to take steps to proactively establish protections for people peacefully filming officers in public. Currently, West New York has no policies on its books affirming the right of people to film police.
“Cellphone cameras have become a common tool for holding police accountable, but unfortunately, the knowledge that it’s perfectly legal to film officers in public hasn’t spread as rapidly,” said ACLU-NJ attorney Rebecca Livengood, who represents Sanchez. “Officers already know that cellphone cameras have become the new normal, and now they need to accept that people have the right to use their devices to film police.”
Earlier this year, the ACLU of New Jersey released Mobile Justice, a smartphone application 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.
“We the people may know our rights, but the police must uphold those rights for democracy to work,” said Livengood. “West New York needs to adopt a policy that promises the public that the police will respect our freedoms, even the ones – or especially the ones – that they would prefer we not exercise.”
In 2012, the ACLU-NJ won a successful settlement on behalf of Khaliah Fitchette, a Newark teenager who was held in a police car and arrested after filming police officers while she was riding a city bus.
The complaint is captioned Sanchez v. Town of West New York. Mobile Justice is available for free on Android and Apple iOS platforms.
NEWARK – Black people were 9.6 times more likely to be arrested than White people in Jersey City in 2013 for low-level offenses such as loitering, possession of small amounts of marijuana, trespassing, and disorderly conduct, according to a study (PDF) released today by the ACLU of New Jersey.
This extreme racial disparity was not unique to the state’s second largest city. Data for the most recent years available revealed disparities in low-level arrests in the three other municipalities studied – Millville, where Blacks were 6.3 times more likely to be arrested; Elizabeth, 3.4 times; and New Brunswick, 2.6 times. Disparities in the number of arrests between Hispanics/Latinos and Whites also were significant, where data were available. Not all of the departments tracked ethnicity in their arrest data.
“The data reveal a clear pattern of communities of color disproportionately bearing the brunt of police practices that target low-level offenses,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer.
“In Black and Latino communities, New Jerseyans are arrested for minor misbehavior at a much greater rate than in White communities. Unlike more serious crime, where there is a victim or some form of property damage, low-level offenses rest primarily on a police officer’s discretion to arrest for behavior that poses little or no harm to the community. The discretionary nature of these arrests creates ample opportunity for arbitrary and unfair enforcement of the law.”
The origins of this report stem from a 2013 national report by the ACLU that showed Black people in New Jersey were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people, despite similar rates of marijuana use – a clear indicator of selective enforcement.
“New Jersey’s shameful racial disparities in arrests for minor offenses mirror what we’re seeing across the country,” said Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Just as in Ferguson, Minneapolis, Maryland, and beyond, New Jersey police must end this unequal treatment and the harm caused to communities of color.”
The ACLU of NJ, supported by the national ACLU, further examined those findings by taking a closer look at arrest data from four municipalities in New Jersey – Jersey City, Elizabeth, New Brunswick and Millville – that reflected the diversity of the state in population density, demographics and geography.
In the report, the ACLU-NJ examined 10 years of data on the enforcement of four low-level offenses: loitering; marijuana possession of 50 grams or less; defiant trespass; and disorderly conduct. The report chose to examine those arrests because police officers exercise so much discretion in the enforcement of these types of offenses.
The report relied on departmental data for arrests obtained through the Open Public Records Act. The report originally sought to include Asbury Park in the analysis but the Asbury Park Police Department, despite the existence of a data management system and electronic database, was unable to produce records that could be properly analyzed and was dropped from the study.
The report documented widespread and extreme racial disparities in all four locations studied. Among the findings of the report:
The human cost of all of these low-level arrests can be devastating.
“Even though these are low-level offenses, arrests and convictions can impose heavy burdens on the person involved, including payment of court costs and fines; criminal records that will follow them the rest of their lives; and loss of income, housing, child custody, or immigration status,” said Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “In extreme cases, a confrontation with police over a low-level offense can escalate into an episode of deadly violence.”
The report recommends remedies at the local and state level that include changing the policies and practices of police in enforcing the law; improving recordkeeping; and creating greater accountability by police to the civilian population they serve. Among the specific reforms:
The report also calls on the Attorney General to investigate racial disparities in low-level offenses in municipalities throughout the state.
"This study serves as a glimpse into the racial disparities in low-level arrests for only four law-enforcement agencies. But it's clear: Black and Latino communities bear the disproportionate impact of enforcement in New Jersey,” said Ari Rosmarin, Public Policy Director of the ACLU-NJ. “The Attorney General should investigate whether such disparities exist throughout the state, determine the causes of the disparities, and take steps to eliminate them. It's time for action.”
NEWARK - The ACLU of New Jersey and Rutgers School of Law-Newark Constitutional Rights Clinic today submitted comments to the Motor Vehicle Commission Chairman and Chief Administrator Raymond Martinez making the case against proposed amendments to the state’s driver’s license laws that would authorize the Motor Vehicle Commission to scan and retain copies of documents that prove New Jerseyans’ identities and residency. The public comment period for these changes, which would challenge the privacy, security, and constitutional rights of New Jerseyans, ends on Friday, December 4.
Currently, the state’s regulations require people seeking a state-issued ID card to show an MVC representative certain documents to prove their identity and residency before obtaining identification, most commonly a driver’s license. Under the new proposal, the MVC would scan and maintain those documents, which can include birth certificates and Social Security cards, creating fertile ground for identity thieves, whether they are hackers or MVC employees themselves.
“These amendments are incredibly disturbing, and it would be a huge blow to our privacy for them to slide through the approval process without a fight,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “These regulations have no adequate protections for our privacy. These regulations make us more vulnerable to identity thieves, not less, whether from outside hackers or from within the MVC, as has happened before. We hope these amendments are scrapped or drastically rewritten for the good of our constitutional rights.”
The MVC has not explained why it must maintain copies of New Jerseyans’ personal documents nor justified why the state’s interest in copying them outweighs residents’ privacy rights. The MVC has said only that it seeks to keep documents for “security” purposes, but the agency does not adequately elaborate on the privacy protections involved.
The fraud cited in a 2002 report that led to the creation of a six-point ID system was perpetrated by MVC employees. Later, in 2011, six MVC employees were indicted on several charges for selling counterfeit licenses. The MVC has not explained its rationale for stockpiling New Jersey residents’ documents in the hopes that it will discourage fraud committed by MVC employees themselves.
“We keep coming back to this crucial point: the Motor Vehicle Commission has not identified any real need for keeping copies of people’s highly sensitive documents,” said Rutgers School of Law-Newark Dean Ronald Chen, on behalf of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic. “The MVC is telling the public to trust them by making our personal information vulnerable. The public should not be forced to sacrifice their privacy under any circumstances, and especially not when the MVC has not even articulated a colorable justification for retaining these documents.”
The proposed regulations fail to satisfy the requirements of even the woefully problematic federal Real ID Act, which requires that states “take measures to protect any personally identifiable information pursuant to the Real ID Act as described in their security plan.”
“The proposed amendments do not articulate, much less justify, the need to retain copies of the document, as distinct from the need to inspect them,” the ACLU-NJ and Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic’s comments said. “… Indeed, the compilation of this vast amount of sensitive personal information will create a treasure trove for identity thieves, whether they are hackers or government employees."
NEWARK -- The ACLU of New Jersey is asking the state Department of Human Services and state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness to make public the “directive” issued by Gov. Chris Christie that bars state agencies from assisting in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in New Jersey.
In a request made through the Open Public Record Act (OPRA), the ACLU-NJ seeks further detail about the plan envisioned by the governor, including documentation of his directive and documents showing how the agencies are implementing the directive.
Christie first mentioned the directive in a Nov. 17 letter to President Obama in which he declared the state will not accept any refuges from Syria.
“Effective today, I am directing the New Jersey Department of Human Services not to participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in the State of New Jersey,” Christie wrote, “and am requesting that all nongovernmental organizations assisting with the resettlement of refugees in New Jersey notify the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness and Department of Human Services of their placement of any refugees from Syria.”
So far, 75 refugees from Syria have been resettled in New Jersey, according to social service agencies. The Obama Administration is considering allowing thousands more resettle in the U.S.
NEWARK - The ACLU of New Jersey strongly condemned New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for telling President Barack Obama today that New Jersey will not accept refugees from Syria. Governor Christie’s letter to President Obama follows Christie’s Nov. 16 statement to radio host Hugh Hewitt that the U.S. should not admit any Syrian refugees, even “orphans under five.”
New Jersey has taken in 75 refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria since the beginning of January, making it the ninth highest state in terms of accepting refugees this year. Since 2012, 1,854 Syrian refugees have settled in the U.S.
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“As New Jerseyans, we’re deeply disappointed that Governor Christie would turn his back on refugees who are trying to escape exactly what he fears: terrorism. This kind of fear-mongering blames refugees for the very terror they are fleeing, and it erodes our civil rights and civil liberties.
“Resettlement of refugees is a matter handled by the U.S. State Department, not individual governors. States don’t have veto power in this area, and it would violate the Constitution for a governor to bar an entire group of refugees based on nationality, religion, race, or ethnicity.
“New Jersey in particular has been a haven for those who need refuge the most, and Christie’s sentiments go against American principles and the principles of the people of our state. We stand in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France commemorating our revolutionary devotion to freedom and a symbol of welcome to immigrants the world over.
“Christie’s extreme response to the question of Syrian refugees underestimates the safeguards in place to ensure our security. The United States is known for being painstakingly rigorous in screening refugees seeking to resettle in America. Christie’s blanket refusal to consider accepting even a small part of the largest flow of humanity since the Second World War speaks to an indiscriminate distrust of people who seek better lives on our shores.”
NEWARK - Smartphones have become a game-changing check on police power, and the release of a new video recording app by the ACLU-NJ gives New Jerseyans even more power to document interactions with law enforcement.
As part of a national movement to hold police departments accountable, the ACLU-NJ joins 11 other ACLU affiliates today in launching state-specific versions of Mobile Justice, an app for Android and Apple phones that allows users to record interactions with police and to send them immediately to the ACLU to evaluate for civil rights and civil liberties violations.
“You have the right to film the police, and everyone should feel empowered to exercise that right,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “From Eric Garner to Walter Scott, videos of police encounters have revealed hard truths about biased policing and police brutality. And it’s sparking a movement to reform police practices. This app is designed to place power in the hands of the people and help document police abuses, while hopefully deterring police misconduct from happening in the first place.”
The app has features that allow users to:
The app also contains New Jersey-specific information outlining the rights of individuals when interacting with police.
Videos captured on the Mobile Justice NJ app will be transmitted to the ACLU-NJ and preserved even if the user’s phone is later seized or destroyed.
“The use of mobile phone cameras has permanently changed American policing for the better by shedding light on the prevalence of police abuses, a very real concern in many New Jersey communities, especially in communities of color,” said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “The ACLU is excited New Jerseyans will now have a direct line of contact with us to instantly report when civil rights violations have taken place. Greater police accountability will lead to better policing and safer communities.”
The ACLU of New Jersey released an earlier version of a recording application in 2012, but Mobile Justice has improved upon and expanded that technology.
Mobile Justice NJ is mainly intended for use by bystanders, and users of the app should always make sure to not interfere with police investigations. The ACLU of New Jersey recognizes that some users may want to use it while they are involved in a police encounter. Persons directly interacting with police officers should follow police directions and should not make movements that may put them in danger. Anyone interacting with law enforcement should announce that they are reaching for a phone, and that they are attempting to access the app to record the exchange. Users’ safety depends on their ability to clearly communicate any actions they take and remain calm. If unsure, do not reach for your phone.
NEWARK - Upon President Obama’s visit to Newark to announce initiatives to reform the criminal justice system in the United States, the ACLU-NJ issues a statement praising these efforts and recommending proposals to make the criminal justice system fairer. During his trip to Newark, President Obama will focus primarily on easing prisoners’ reentry into society after incarceration as one part of larger plans to make the criminal justice system more humane.
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“The ACLU of New Jersey welcomes President Barack Obama to Newark, and applauds the leadership of the president, United States Senator Cory Booker, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in fixing our nation's broken criminal justice system. The United States currently holds 2.2 million people in prison, up from fewer than 350,000 in 1972. With five percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
“While New Jersey has worked to reduce its prison population, the state still imprisons far too many people; and they are disproportionately from low-income communities of color. If New Jersey were its own country, it would have the second highest incarceration rate in the world, just behind Cuba. Beyond the high number of prisoners, New Jersey still suffers under the tremendous racial disparity that plagues the criminal justice system across the nation. People from communities of color make up more than three quarters of all prisoners in New Jersey.
“In order to replace this broken system of mass incarceration with a smarter system of criminal justice, transformative change must happen. Our leaders need to tackle every aspect of the criminal justice system, from arrest to reentry. Reforms must include:
“These solutions will ensure that we create a smart justice system, one that is fair and humane, emphasizes prevention, and uses incarceration only as a last resort. We thank President Obama, Senator Booker, and Mayor Baraka for their vision and bold leadership on this vital civil rights issue.”
NEWARK - On the most important civil liberties issues facing the 216th Legislature, a majority in the General Assembly voted with the ACLU of New Jersey at least 90 percent of the time.
The first-ever ACLU-NJ legislative scorecard tracks the records of Assembly members on 13 key issues votes during the legislative session that began Jan. 2014. In the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, in which Assembly members are at the top of the ticket, the ACLU-NJ is releasing a scorecard of those votes to educate the public at large as well as its 20,000 members and donors who live in every single legislative district in the state. The information can be found online at https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard. It includes a table showing how every Assembly member voted on the issues and allows users to learn details about the scored bills, compare Assembly members’ voting records, find out who made the Honor Roll, and look up scores for legislative districts and an interactive map of New Jersey.
“The good news is that most Assembly members vote for civil liberties and civil rights most of the time. The bad news is that our elected officials aren’t always there when it counts, like with the bill to allow transgender New Jerseyans access to birth certificates that reflect their true gender,” said Ari Rosmarin, ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director. “With this kind of sound information, civil rights voters can hold elected officials accountable because they know where their representatives stand on the key issues of the day when they go to the polls.”
Of the hundreds of bills the Legislature considered, the ACLU-NJ identified 13 votes as the most central to civil rights and civil liberties, including legislation to:
Out of New Jersey’s 80 Assembly members, 32 – or 40 percent – made the ACLU-NJ’s Honor Roll, with ratings of 100 percent.
The lowest rating belonged to Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin (R-Brick) at 38 percent. Eight other members of the Assembly scored below 50 percent and also earned a spot on the ACLU-NJ’s less-than 50 percent list.
“Above all, this scorecard is a tool for public accountability. We created it to allow New Jerseyans to learn where their lawmakers stand on key issues involving our rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We’re here to ensure those who have taken a stand for our fundamental civil rights continue to act in defense of our rights and liberties, and we’re here to put pressure on those who need a refresher in what it means to defend the rights of the people. Our goal is for every elected official to achieve a 100 percent rating. Even more importantly, our goal is for every resident of New Jersey to know where their representatives stand.”
The ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor important votes as the Legislature returns for its biennial lame-duck session after the election and before the 217th Legislature is convened in January. An updated scorecard, including scores for the Senate, will mark the end of the legislative term.
Visit https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard to read the scorecard online, look up legislative districts, compare Assembly members on an interactive map of New Jersey, and learn about the details of the scored bills in more detail.
NEWARK -- The ACLU of New Jersey reacted strongly today to the comments made Sunday on Face the Nation by Governor Chris Christie, who wrongly blamed the Black Lives Matter social justice movement for deaths of police officers. In fact, The Washington Post reported last month that 2015 is on pace to see 35 felonious killings of police officers, which would be the second lowest number of murders committed against cops in decades.
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“Governor Christie needs to apologize for his statement that the Black Lives Matter movement is responsible for the killing of police officers in the United States. Such statements are irresponsible, offensive and flat-out wrong. Americans across the political spectrum have come to recognize that our nation's criminal justice system is broken, and the Black Lives Matter movement is part of a growing consensus that has rightfully focused on demanding greater transparency and accountability from our nation's police forces.
“Instead of disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement, Governor Christie should look at the track record of police departments in his own state. The Newark Police Department, the state’s largest municipal force, was cited last year by the United States Department of Justice for engaging in widespread civil rights violations.
“Telling the American people, in effect, to sit down and shut up is no solution to the serious issues too many communities face with law enforcement. The lives of police officers are paramount, but so, too, are the lives of people of color who have disproportionately faced the brunt of a broken criminal justice system.”