ACLU-NJ Part of Broad-Based Coalition to Legalize, Tax and Regulate Marijuana

February 18, 2015
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NEWARK — Prohibition has failed in New Jersey, and it’s time for common-sense reforms that will legalize, tax and regulate the personal use of marijuana by adults.

That was the message delivered Wednesday by New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform — a new, broad-based coalition from New Jersey’s public safety, medical, civil rights, and criminal justice reform communities — at a news conference to announce the launch of its statewide campaign to control, tax and regulate marijuana.

The event marked the formal launch of the campaign and introduced its lead partners from across the state:

  • American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ)
  • Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP)
  • NAACP State Conference of New Jersey
  • Jon-Henry Barr, Esq., President, New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association
  • William J. Caruso, Esq., Managing Director, Archer Public Affairs; Former Executive Director, New Jersey Assembly
  • Dr. David L. Nathan, MD, DFAPA,Princeton-based psychiatrist and Clinical Associate Professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

In the coming year, New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform will work with allies and volunteers from across the state to build broad consensus in support of legalization from northern to southern New Jersey, across political lines, and from the public health and law enforcement communities. New Jerseyans will stand united in ending our state’s prohibition on marijuana.

"Today, we are launching this coalition because the status quo has failed, and it’s time to begin fixing our criminal justice system by ending unjust and discriminatory marijuana arrests,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey.

“New Jersey police make tens of thousands of arrests every year for marijuana possession even though the majority of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal,” Ofer said. “It’s time to stop turning otherwise law-abiding adults into criminals. It’s time to take marijuana out of the parks and street corners and into a regulated and licensed system for adults. “

New Jersey wastes more than $127 million enforcing marijuana laws every year, according to the 2013 ACLU report “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.” Legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana would bring New Jersey significant revenue through a controlled marketplace, creating jobs and opportunities to reinvest in our communities. Law enforcement resources that could be better used to protect public safety would be preserved while reducing corrections and court costs associated with small marijuana possession arrests.

“As a municipal prosecutor, I have had to waste countless taxpayer dollars and hours of police officers’ time to prosecute New Jerseyans, usually just over a joint,” said Jon-Henry Barr, Esq., President of the New Jersey Municipal Prosecutor's Association. “It's brought me to the point where I believe that legalization and regulation are the only way to ensure that prosecutors are not wasting precious taxpayer resources and that we have the time to prosecute serious crimes.”

Law enforcement officials have been some of the most vocal supporters of taxing, regulating and controlling marijuana use and distribution, pointing to the public safety costs of maintaining the status quo.

“New Jersey’s marijuana policies have failed, and continue to fail to effectively address the problems of drug abuse, especially the problems of juvenile drug use, the problems of addiction, and the problems of crime caused by the existence of a criminal market in drugs,” said Lieutenant Jack Cole (Ret.), a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police, and co-founder and board chair of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Regulation of marijuana will enhance public safety by striking a blow to the illegal drug market and will free up New Jersey law enforcement resources to focus on serious crime.”

New Jersey police make more than 21,000 arrests every year for marijuana possession. These arrests disproportionately affect New Jersey’s black community according to the ACLU report. The consequences of being arrested for possession of even a small amount of marijuana can include up to six months in jail, loss of job and driver’s license suspension, and more than $1,000 in fees and fines.


“New Jersey’s marijuana laws are failing people of color. Black people in New Jersey are nearly three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates,” said Richard Smith, President of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference. “Today’s announcement is a game-changer for our community. Marijuana regulation will eliminate thousands of arrests per year and provide new sources of revenue to invest in our communities for education, jobs and public safety.”

For the vast majority of people who consume marijuana today, the greatest harms are not health-related. They are the criminal and civil sanctions that can prohibit them from securing employment, housing or an education.

“Throughout my career as a clinical psychiatrist, I have borne witness to the devastation brought upon marijuana users — not so much by misuse of the drug, but by a justice system that uses a sledgehammer to kill a weed. Currently, the criminal consequences of marijuana use are far worse than the medical consequences, and this is a national tragedy,” said Dr. David Nathan, MD, a Princeton-based psychiatrist. “Marijuana possession should be legal for adults, and we should use revenues from marijuana taxation to educate young people about the actual harms caused by its recreational use.”

In addition to the leadership of NJUMR, organizations and individuals from across New Jersey have endorsed the launch of the campaign, including:

  • Dominick Bucci, Retired New Jersey State Police Lieutenant
  • Jack Cole, Retired New Jersey State Police Lieutenant and co-founder and board chair of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
  • Tim Datig, Retired NYPD Officer, Vermont Police Chief, and New Jersey State Resident
  • Reverend James A. Dunkins, Senior Pastor, Shiloh Baptist Church of Port Norris and Vineland
  • Help Not Handcuffs
  • Marijuana Policy Project
  • New Jersey Citizen Action
  • New Jersey Libertarian Party
  • New Jersey Policy Perspective
  • New Jersey Tenants Organization
  • New Jersey United Students
  • NORML New Jersey

The NJUMR steering committee also announced the launch of www.NJMarijuanaReform.org, a clearinghouse for information and activism in support of controlling, taxing and regulating adult marijuana use and possession.

New Jersey would become the fifth state to reform its marijuana laws by creating a regulated system. Ballot measures to legalize marijuana passed in Colorado and Washington in 2012, andin Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., in 2014.

 

Civil Rights Advocates Urge NJ State Senate Committee to Severely Restrict Solitary Confinement

February 12, 2015
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Inhumane isolation damages mental health of prisoners and poses dangers to society

Members of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, a coalition of groups committed to ending solitary confinement, as currently practiced in New Jersey's jails and prisons, testified today in favor of a bill to severely restrict its use. The bill, S-2588, sponsored by State Senators Peter Barnes III and Raymond Lesniak, would impose limits and safeguards that have been shown to improve both institutional and community safety.

“I’ve been on both sides of solitary confinement, and I know that many people think of it as a temporary punishment that lasts only as long as the isolation itself,” said Terrell A. Blount, a student in Rutgers University’s Master of Public Administration program. “Based on what I’ve seen working with men who have served long sentences, some who served 10 years in isolation, solitary confinement is a sentence that lasts a lifetime. At the age of 21, I entered solitary myself, and I was assaulted by a man twice my age with a sentence four times longer than my own. Most people who serve time in solitary will re-enter society. And when they do, we should ask ourselves if we want them to be haunted by the torture they endured, or if we want them in a position where they can make the greatest contributions to society as possible. New Jersey needs this bill signed into law, as do the countless men and women in our state who have been subjected to the unjust and inhumane practice most commonly called solitary confinement.”

Specifically, S-2588 would:

  • Reduce the length of time a person can be kept in solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days and no more than 20 in a 60-day period
  • Ban the solitary confinement of vulnerable populations, including children and prisoners with mental illness
  • Ensure access to due process, for people subjected to solitary confinement
  • Call on the Department of Corrections to develop safer and more humane alternatives

“Long-term solitary confinement is cruel, it’s expensive, and it’s ineffective,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “This bill has the potential to bring New Jersey in line with other states across the country, from New York to Mississippi, that have made their prisons safer and increased the safety of society. Long term solitary confinement is clearly recognized as torture, and it’s time New Jersey took steps to bring its use to an end. This bill is the best opportunity we’ve had.”

In effect, the bill would encourage corrections authorities to seek effective safe alternatives and use isolation only as a last resort, in contrast to its current status as a routine form of punishment.

Solitary confinement refers to the practice of locking people in small cells for 20 or more hours at a time, whether alone or with others, without any sensory or mental stimulation. Research has clearly shown that such confinement inflicts devastating, sometimes irreparable trauma, especially for young people and people with mental illnesses. Studies have widely shown solitary confinement to be an expensive and ineffective practice that compromises safety inside correctional institutions as well as public safety in the community, where it interferes with successful prisoner re-entry and is associated with increased recidivism.

“There are so many reasons not to use solitary confinement: the often permanent mental trauma, the increased violence, the added difficulties prisoners face upon reentry,” said Bonnie Kerness, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Program. “The isolation and lack of human contact is considered no-touch torture, and for the sake of human rights, civil rights, and political rights, we must abolish it, and that starts here today with this bill.”

Across the country, other states have improved corrections operations and public safety by instituting alternatives to solitary confinement. Most recently, New York severely limited its use of solitary confinement with legislation similar to S-5288, banning the solitary confinement of juveniles and people with mental illness. Washington state uses segregated housing sparingly, incorporating tactics such as restricting privileges. Maine State Prison’s institutional violence decreased as a result of a reduction in use of solitary confinement. When Mississippi reduced its isolation of prisoners, the state not only saw drastic declines in prison violence, but saved more than $5 million.

“Roughly 95 percent of those currently incarcerated will one day return home to our communities,” said the Rev. Charles F. Boyer, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Somerset, NJ, and a member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “We believe it is a moral imperative that these individuals, our neighbors, return home prepared to contribute meaningfully within their communities.”

The ACLU-NJ in 2013 filed a petition with the Juvenile Justice Commission to end the solitary confinement of children as punishment, and in 2014 filed a lawsuit on behalf of an inmate with multiple mental disorders held in solitary for months at a time in the Middlesex County Jail. While juveniles and people with mental illness in particular are most vulnerable to the devastating, permanent effects of solitary confinement, the practice inflicts heavy psychological damage in all groups of people.

“It is now past time to stop subjecting human beings in State custody to long term isolation, by supporting S2588 today, said attorney Jean Ross, a member of the People’s Organization for Progress. “In New Jersey, the time to end this practice is now, and the way to end it is with this legislation. Because our state was the first to legislatively abolish the death penalty, we are optimistic that the New Jersey Legislature will also take this step to demonstrate that there are more effective and humane ways to keep us safe.”

ACLU-NJ Challenges State Policy Denying Legal Residents Health Care

February 3, 2015
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NEWARK - The New Jersey Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in Guaman v. Velez, an immigrant rights case in which the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey submitted an amicus brief (PDF) challenging the state’s discriminatory cuts to a state health insurance program for low-wage workers.

The lawsuit challenges the state policy that denied participation in the state’s FamilyCare program to immigrants who have been lawful permanent residents less than five years. New Jersey FamilyCare is a state-funded Medicaid program that provides subsidized health insurance to qualifying low-income adults and children. At least 12,000 working residents, who would be otherwise eligible for the program, are affected by these cuts.

The ACLU-NJ’s brief argues that New Jersey violated the constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the laws. The state Appellate Court ruled in August 2013 that the state was permitted to exclude the lawful permanent residents because it linked it’s policy to a “uniform federal standard” governing all Medicaid funding.

The following statement about the case and the oral arguments may be attributed to Edward Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of NJ:

“The imposition of a residency requirement on otherwise-eligible lawful permanent residents — requirements not placed on citizens — violates both the federal and state constitutional guarantee to equal protection.
“The issue is all the more important because of the health care consequences to thousands of working residents. The State's decision to deny benefits can result in more high-cost emergency room visits, a lack of preventative care, and seriously ill individuals who delay seeking treatment.”

Acting Dean of Rutgers Law School – Newark Ronald Chen argued the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ.

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“Cursing” and “Off-Color Language” Not Necessarily Child Abuse NJ Supreme Court Rules, Affirming ACLU-NJ Position

February 2, 2015
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The New Jersey Supreme Court today handed down a ruling (PDF) affirming that a parent is not guilty of child abuse just for admitting to cursing and using off-color language. The ACLU-NJ argued as a friend of the court in State of New Jersey v. Tate that a foster father’s vague description of having cursed and used off-color language in front of his child as part of a guilty plea -- which he requested to withdraw -- was not strong enough evidence of habitual use of obscenity.

“Today’s decision rejects the dangerous notion that offensive language alone amounts to a crime,” said CJ Griffin of the law firm Pashman Stein, who authored the brief (PDF) and argued on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “We’re pleased that the Court recognized that a defendant’s admission to having used curse words and off-color language in front of a child was too vague on details to make him guilty of abuse on that basis alone.”

The ACLU-NJ also argued that the one-hundred-year-old law should be struck down as unconstitutionally vague, but the Supreme Court decided it did not need to address that issue in this case.

“We’re gratified with the court’s decision to safeguard lawful speech by requiring trial courts to obtain factually sufficient guilty pleas,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “The law in question at the center of this case, however, still raises serious constitutional problems, and we hope those issues can be resolved either through the legislature or through the courts.”

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Advocates Greet Newark Mayor’s Police Oversight Proposal with Cautious Optimism

January 20, 2015
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Newark’s leading advocates for police accountability reacted today with cautious optimism to the announcement of a planned executive order from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to establish a civilian complaint review board (CCRB) to help oversee the Newark Police Department (NPD).

The Mayor’s proposed executive order would create a CCRB with the power to receive and investigate complaints — including by subpoenaing documents and witnesses — relating to a broad array of police misconduct, as well as the power to audit police policies and practices. The proposal also includes due process protections for police officers accused of misconduct. Mayor Baraka’s announcement today also triggered the start of a 30-day period for Newarkers to provide comments to the Mayor’s office on the proposed CCRB.

N-CAP commended Mayor Baraka for taking action to advance the cause of police accountability. Its member groups urged the Mayor to strengthen the proposal to ensure the CCRB is fully independent and can meaningfully hold the NPD accountable. This includes meaningful mechanisms to ensure that discipline sticks when police officers are found to have engaged in wrongdoing.

N-CAP organizations called on Mayor Baraka to strengthen the proposed CCRB before endorsing its establishment in Newark.

“We give Mayor Baraka credit for recognizing the need for civilian oversight of the police, and we believe this proposal creates an important start,” said Melvin Warren, Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, NAACP New Jersey State Conference. “Newark cannot afford a CCRB that lacks the power to deliver on its promise of accountability. The CCRB must be empowered to make sure that officers are disciplined when they abuse Newarkers’ rights. The days of letting the police police themselves must come to an end.”

Creation of a strong and independent civilian complaint review board with full investigatory powers and independent fact-finding is a central plank of Newark Communities for Accountable Policing’s (N-CAP) mission.

“We need an independent review board with the power to make discipline stick,” said Larry Hamm, Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. “This proposal is moving in the right direction. It is our hope that after the 30-day comment period the final version will achieve that.”

The Mayor’s announcement comes as the City and the United States Department of Justice move closer to the appointment of a federal monitor to implement a pending consent decree to oversee reforms of the NPD. A three-year Department of Justice investigation confirmed widespread civil rights and civil liberties abuses by the NPD, including unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk and arrest practices, excessive use of force, punishment of Newarkers exercising their First Amendment rights, theft by officers, and an anemic, dysfunctional internal affairs structure.

“Newark has an opportunity to seize a historic moment by taking bold action to hold police accountable for misconduct,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “We commend Mayor Baraka for taking this important first step, yet this proposal as written still grants the Police Director unfettered discretion over police discipline. We hope the City of Newark will learn from the failures of other civilian review boards across the nation and provide Newark’s CCRB with the independence needed for genuine accountability. We look forward to working with the mayor over the 30 day comment period to build on his proposal."

N-CAP welcomed the opportunity to engage Newarkers in a conversation about police accountability and plans to conduct a citywide public education effort during the 30-day public comment period to generate support for establishing a strong and independent CCRB.

“N-CAP is here to ensure that all Newarkers are part of the planning of the creation of this civilian complaint review board,” said Emily Turonis, Organizer at the Ironbound Community Corporation. “We welcome the opportunity to engage our members, neighbors, friends, and community partners in generating a chorus of voices calling for genuine police accountability. It’s a new day in Newark. The time for change is now.”

N-CAP plans to advocate with the Mayor’s office to ensure that community voices are heard and community input is considered as planning for the CCRB continues.

“Newarkers have been calling for civilian oversight of the police since the 1960s and we will not rest until we have it,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, President, Newark NAACP. “We must build effective oversight of the police department that becomes permanent in Newark and will outlast any one Mayor or federal monitor. We push forward so that our grandchildren will not have to march the same paths for justice and sing the same songs for their dignity that we have.”

“Police Accountability is a top concern for so many communities in Newark. Whether you’re Black, Latino, a student, an immigrant, LGBTQ-identifying, disabled, homeless, or a parent, we all deserve to be treated fairly and with respect,” said Andrea Bowen, Executive Director of Garden State Equality. “Meaningful accountability will increase public safety by building trust and respect between the police and all communities in Newark.”

Four of the five organizations with appointment authority under Mayor Baraka’s proposed CCRB are members of the N-CAP Steering Committee.

The N-CAP steering committee includes: 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Garden State Equality, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Newark LGBTQ Community Center, Newark NAACP, and the People’s Organization for Progress.

NJ Supreme Court Strikes Down Unconstitutional Mandatory Minimums

January 16, 2015
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The New Jersey Supreme Court yesterday issued a decision that accepted the ACLU-NJ’s call to strike down a New Jersey statute that had improperly increased criminal sentences by increasing periods of parole ineligibility based on a factual finding by a judge rather than a jury. In State v. Grate and Cromwell, the state Supreme Court determined that the statute at issue violated a previous United States Supreme Court decision that only a jury’s findings, rather than a judge’s determination alone, can increase a punishment given in a criminal case. Here, a lower court judge had increased the sentence of two defendants based on information that the jury never had an opportunity to consider. The Supreme Court has now sent the case back to the lower court to determine a new sentence in light of the new decision.

The state had previously acknowledged that the statute at issue conflicted with the United States Supreme Court decision, but asked that New Jersey's highest court engage in judicial surgery to save the statute. The Court declined, as the statute clearly contemplated that the fact-finding should be done by a judge. As such, the Court could not determine whether the Legislature would have wanted to transfer the fact-finding to the jury or consider other options.

“Because the Court struck down the statute, yesterday's decision puts the question of mandatory minimums back in the hands of the Legislature. We are now at a crossroads. Do we continue to promulgate laws that strip discretion from judges or, in this case, parole boards, and mandate harsher and harsher sentences, or do we inject rationality back into our sentencing scheme?” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom, who authored the ACLU-NJ’s amicus brief in the case.

In this particular case, two men were convicted of unlawful possession of weapons. At the sentencing hearing, a witness testified that the men were gang members, which, if found by a judge, carried with it a mandatory minimum sentence that precluded the possibility of parole for five years. Based on that information, the judge enhanced the sentences, but as the Court yesterday ruled, this unilateral action violated the defendants’ constitutional rights.

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ACLU-NJ Welcomes N.J. Supreme Court Upholding Rights of Mother Prescribed Methadone During Pregnancy

December 22, 2014
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NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ today praised a decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that unanimously upheld the rights of a woman who took methadone during pregnancy to treat an addiction to opioids, affirming the arguments of the amicus brief the ACLU-NJ submitted in the case. The state’s highest court determined that the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services and the Appellate Division had erred by deeming the mother responsible for abuse and neglect of her child because she took a prescribed medication for the purposes of harm-reduction while under a doctor’s care.

This decision reversed an Appellate Division ruling that had considered any harm to a child, regardless of the broader facts surrounding the circumstances, as evidence of abuse or neglect. The court also remanded the case back to the lower court to assess whether there were any alternate reasons for the finding.

“This ruling underscores that the state should not be in the business of second-guessing medical decisions made by a woman and her doctor,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “Penalizing pregnant women for seeking health care is not only unconstitutional, but counterproductive.”

On the recommendation of her doctors, Y.N. took methadone during pregnancy to treat her addiction to the pain killer Percocet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, methadone maintenance treatment is “the most effective treatment for opiate addiction” and leads to “improved pregnancy outcomes,” which the decision itself referenced.  When Y.N.’s child was born, he required treatment for opioid withdrawal, as doctors had anticipated, but was otherwise healthy. The Appellate Division determined that the child’s withdrawal symptoms were sufficient for a finding of abuse and neglect.

According to the New Jersey Supreme Court the Appellate Division applied an excessively stringent and inflexible interpretation that did not factor in the mother’s decision-making in the best interest of herself and her pregnancy. The court’s decision also discussed the lower court ruling’s “perverse disincentive” for pregnant women to be forthcoming with their doctors, fearing that an appropriate course of treatment for addiction could ultimately result in a ruling of abuse or neglect.

“This ruling is incredibly important for recognizing the nuances involved in making complex personal medical decisions, especially during pregnancy,” said Ronald Chen of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic, who served as cooperating attorney in this case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “If, as a society, we truly care about healthy moms and healthy babies, we must ensure pregnant women have access to prenatal care, support, and treatment to overcome their addiction.”

The unanimous ruling was authored by New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry T. Albin.

“We hold that, absent exceptional circumstances, a finding of abuse or neglect cannot be sustained based solely on a newborn’s enduring methadone withdrawal following a mother’s timely participation in a bona fide treatment program prescribed by a licensed healthcare professional to whom she has made full disclosure,” the court's opinion said.

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ACLU-NJ Wins Injunction in New Brunswick Ban on Begging

December 22, 2014
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NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ won a temporary injunction today in Middlesex County Superior Court that prevents New Brunswick from enforcing two laws that make it illegal to beg. With pro bono attorneys from the firm McCarter & English, LLP, led by partner Gerard Brew, the ACLU-NJ brought the case on Dec. 19 on behalf of John Fleming, a homeless man who lives in New Brunswick and who had been cited and arrested under the laws, as well as on behalf of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.

Judge Frank Ciuffani expressed concerns about the ordinances’ constitutionality, and the City of New Brunswick asked to schedule the hearing in February to consider ways to amend the ordinances to align them with constitutional principles.

“We’re grateful that Judge Ciuffani understood the constitutional problems in banning begging in New Brunswick, and we’re grateful for the swift action taken today in suspending the laws,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “These ordinances target a particular kind of message. No one should be subjected to a fine for holding a sign or asking for spare change. Thankfully, for now, New Brunswick will have no authority to interfere in that form of speech.”

The two ordinances that have been temporarily halted criminalize begging within the town and require a permit to solicit philanthropic donations, although permits are only granted to organizations, not individuals. John Fleming, a wheelchair-bound homeless resident of New Brunswick who relies on the charity of others to survive, received citations from police four times in less than two months for asking for money via a sign that read “Broke – Please Help – Thank you – God bless you.” At the time of the fourth citation, police arrested Fleming because he missed a court appearance for a previous citation.

“The holiday season puts these anti-begging laws in stark perspective,” said Deb Ellis, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. “We profess the spirit of giving, and yet cities are targeting vulnerable populations. The judge today made the correct and compassionate call, by putting these unfair ordinances on hold.”

The hearing to consider permanent injunction of the ordinances, scheduled for February 12, 2015, at 1:30 p.m., will take place at the Middlesex County Courthouse.

ACLU-NJ and Homeless Group Challenge New Brunswick’s Unconstitutional Ban on Begging

December 19, 2014
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NEWARK -- The ACLU-NJ filed a lawsuit against the City of New Brunswick for two unconstitutional ordinances – one forbids panhandling and the other requires a permit to solicit philanthropic donations – that violate the First Amendment and in effect criminalize poverty. With pro bono attorneys from McCarter & English, LLP, the ACLU-NJ filed the suit on behalf of John Fleming, a New Brunswick man who has been cited several times and arrested for violating the ordinances, and on behalf of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.

The lawsuit seeks an immediate and permanent end to the ordinances and requested the court schedule a prompt hearing.

 “The inconvenience a passerby might experience from hearing a plea for money pales in comparison to the violation a homeless person experiences in losing an essential constitutional liberty,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Unfortunately, New Brunswick isn’t alone – not in the U.S., and not in New Jersey. The ACLU-NJ is committed to making sure towns in our state don’t use poverty as grounds to strip people of their rights.”

John Fleming, a wheelchair-bound homeless resident of New Brunswick who relies on panhandling to survive, received citations from police four times in less than two months for asking for money via a sign that read “Broke – Please Help – Thank you – God bless you.” At the time of the fourth citation, police arrested Fleming because he missed a court appearance for a previous citation. He was later held for failing to appear in court on traffic violation from Watchung more than 10 years before.

“Individuals like Mr. Fleming must choose between acquiring enough money to survive and facing citations or arrests,” said Deb Ellis, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. “Making poor people into criminals does not reduce homelessness or poverty. A person experiencing homelessness suffers many indignities – losing freedom of speech shouldn’t be added to that list.”

The ordinances at issue ban constitutionally protected, peaceful expression by outlawing certain forms of speech based solely on the content: asking for money or food. The anti-panhandling ordinance unconstitutionally prohibits people from asking for money in public. Another ordinance bans solicitation of philanthropic gifts without a permit, although only organizations rather than individuals can obtain them. Fleming has been cited under both ordinances. In its filing, the ACLU-NJ asks the court to immediately and permanently strike the two ordinances from the books.

“All I’m doing is holding a sign to ask for help, but this isn’t just about me – it’s about the government not being able to arrest people for what they say,” Fleming said. 

New Brunswick is not alone in criminalizing poverty. Towns in New Jersey, and across the country, have passed ordinances banning panhandling and forbidding sharing food with homeless people, as documented in the report “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities” released by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Atlantic City, Newark, and Trenton are reported to have laws on the books banning or restricting begging. Atlantic City requires a permit and has requirements a homeless person might not be able to meet, and it bans begging in certain places in town, while Trenton and Newark ban begging both citywide and in particular sites. Atlantic City and Trenton also ban sleeping in public city-wide.

“Our constitution prohibits laws that punish the peaceful speech of homeless and destitute people,” said cooperating attorney Emily Goldberg, Pro Bono Director of McCarter & English, LLP.  “Fifty years ago, this country declared a war on poverty, but now it seems that towns like New Brunswick have declared a war on the impoverished.”   

The case, captioned New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness & Fleming v. New Brunswick, was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court.

ACLU-NJ on Bergen Sheriff Withdrawing Military Surplus Request

December 2, 2014
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Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino is dropping a request to the U.S. Department of Defense surplus supply program for two heavily armored mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, according to media reports.

Three months ago, the ACLU of New Jersey and 150 of its supporters wrote to Sheriff Saudino urging him to withdraw from the DOD 1033 Program his application for the 18-ton vehicles specifically designed to withstand the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that ground troops encountered during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin made the following statement in response to the media reports:

“Sheriff Saudino’s decision clearly validates the concerns expressed by the ACLU of New Jersey and Bergen County residents. The best way to keep our cities and towns safe is to build trust and cooperation through community policing, not instilling a “warrior” mentality among police officers.

“The continuing militarization of local police departments is a serious concern for all of New Jersey. Officers should not be patrolling Main Street with grenade launchers and M-16 automatic rifles. Even if proper training is happening, the militarization of police is a disaster waiting to happen.

“New Jersey deserves greater transparency when it comes to decisions surrounding the acquisition of this surplus military equipment, including public discussion and approval by local elected officials, as well as strict regulations and standard operating procedures to ensure that such weaponry is used only by those with adequate training and only when absolutely necessary.”