Legislature Passes Historic Solitary Confinement Restrictions in NJ

October 20, 2016
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Assembly vote sends human rights measure to Christie’s desk

With a historic vote in the New Jersey Assembly, the Legislature today passed a bill to restrict solitary confinement in New Jersey’s prisons and jails. The bill aims to end the routine use of the tactic and bar its use on New Jersey’s most vulnerable prison populations. The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin in the Assembly and Senator Ray Lesniak in the Senate, now goes to Governor Christie’s desk. The ACLU-NJ, clergy members, and human rights organizations such as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture urge the Governor to sign the bill into law.

“This is a watershed moment for civil rights and human rights in New Jersey,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “We thank Assemblywoman Pinkin and Senator Lesniak for their leadership and strong sense of conscience in advocating for more humane treatment of prisoners. We urge Governor Christie act on his compassion by quickly signing this bill. New Jersey can show the rest of the country what more humane solitary confinement looks like.”

The bill, S51:

  • Requires facilities to use solitary confinement — 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 – only as a last resort.
  • Prohibits solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or 20 days in a 60-day period.
  • Bans isolation for the most vulnerable populations, including people who have mental illnesses, pregnant women, LGBTQ people, and people with various disabilities.
  • Requires medical clearance and daily evaluations for prisoners in solitary confinement.

“We thank the Legislature for its national leadership on criminal justice reform by curbing our state’s addiction to solitary confinement,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “We now call on Governor Christie to honor his commitment to fix our broken criminal justice system. The overwhelming harms of solitary confinement make the practice little more than cruelty for cruelty’s sake.”

Administrative segregation units, a form of solitary confinement, are more expensive to maintain than normal incarceration conditions. By shifting away from these units, the ACLU-NJ calculated that the state could ultimately save more than $5 million per year by cutting solitary confinement by 50 percent, based on conservative estimates. More importantly, the ACLU-NJ and human rights organizations say, solitary confinement is considered a form of torture. Solitary confinement can exacerbate mental illnesses, and it can bring on mental illness where it didn’t exist before.

In New Jersey, the ACLU-NJ has brought several legal cases challenging the abuse and misuse of solitary confinement. One man, P.D., was held in solitary for months at a time in the Middlesex County Jail despite the harms solitary confinement poses on individuals with mental illnesses, such as P.D. The ACLU-NJ represents a group of prisoners held in solitary confinement in Middlesex County Jail who cannot receive visits from family members while in solitary confinement. This summer, the ACLU-NJ won a victory on behalf of a man who was given more than three years of solitary confinement for throwing a bucket of water mixed with feces.

New Jersey is part of a national trend in restricting the use of solitary confinement. Earlier this year, the federal government enacted similar restrictions on solitary confinement in federal prisons and jails. Many states have severely limited the use of solitary confinement, resulting in greater public safety and savings in state budgets.

Some examples of infractions that have resulted in solitary confinement in New Jersey include:

  • A man in New Jersey State Prison received 90 days in solitary confinement for using obscene language to a staff member, despite the fact that witnesses said the officer was the one who used foul language, not the inmate.
  • An inmate acting as an informal “jailhouse lawyer” received an 810-day solitary confinement sentence for providing legal help to female prisoners filing in a class-action civil rights suit. Letters from attorneys were considered “contraband.” 
  • A man received 180 days of solitary confinement because he was prescribed 50 mg of Benadryl, and he had two 25-mg pills rather than a single pill.

The Department of Corrections has claimed that solitary confinement does not take place in New Jersey facilities. Rather, it uses the label “restrictive housing units,” a difference in terminology that amounts to the same practice. For that reason, the Department of Corrections has stated it cannot participate in estimating the fiscal impact of solitary confinement reform.

Senate Votes for Independent Investigations When Police Use Fatal Force

October 20, 2016
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Bill requiring independent investigations and prosecutions when police take a life passes Senate

The New Jersey Senate today passed S2469, a bill requiring independent investigations when someone dies at the hands of law enforcement. A broad coalition of civil rights, clergy, and labor groups — including the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Clergy Coalition for Justice, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and the ACLU-NJ — advocated for this bill as an important first step to guaranteeing accountability when police officers wrongfully use their power.

The ACLU-NJ included independent investigations for police violence as a top priority in its five-point blueprint for police reform released this summer.
Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou

The ACLU-NJ issues the following statement, which can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou:

“Giving people confidence that investigations into police violence will be independent is a key part of building trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. We give police officers extraordinary power, including the power to take a life. The public deserves to hold law enforcement accountable when officers abuse those powers wrongfully.

“We strongly commend Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Ronald L. Rice and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg for their leadership on this fundamental civil rights issue, and we thank the senators who voted for it. We urge members of the Assembly to pass this critically important legislation quickly.

“This bill establishes that, as a baseline standard, investigations will not be tainted by a conflict of interest or the perception of one. The public deserves the security of knowing that an investigation into the most serious action officers could take is conducted as impartially as possible.

“This bill marks an important step in creating police accountability in New Jersey – but we need to go even further. Police misconduct does not have to result in death to create a tragedy, and investigations must be independent whenever serious injuries during police interactions occur. For the sake of the living victims and those who bear the scars of police abuse, more must be done. The yes vote in the Senate today is a promising start.”

The following groups advocated in coalition for S2469:

1199SEIU, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, American Friends Service Committee, Bethany Baptist Church (Newark), Bethel AME Church (Pennington), Bethel AME Church (Woodbury), Black Lives Matter Morristown, Black Lives Matter Paterson, Black Lives Matter New Jersey, Church of the Good Shepherd (Willingboro), Clergy Coalition for Justice, Drug Policy Alliance, Faith in New Jersey, Garden State Equality, Latino Action Network, Latino Leadership Alliance, Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey, Make the Road New Jersey, Morris County NAACP, NAACP – New Jersey State Conference, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, National Organization for Women – NJ, New Jersey Black Issues Convention, New Jersey Citizen Action, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Advocacy, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, New Jersey Parents Caucus, New Jersey Policy Perspective, New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, New Jersey Working Families Alliance, Salvation and Social Justice, Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry

ACLU-NJ Sues School Districts That Discriminate Against Immigrants

October 18, 2016
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After surveying school districts’ enrollment policies periodically for close to a decade, the ACLU-NJ took legal action against five New Jersey school districts for putting up barriers to enrollment for the children of undocumented immigrants. These four districts and a charter school, from four counties, all have policies requiring documents that demonstrate immigration status as a condition of enrollment, in violation of the Constitution and state law. 

All children residing in a district have a right to enroll in school, and school districts are forbidden from excluding them based on their or their parents’ immigration status. The ACLU-NJ calls on the state Department of Education (DOE) to take a more active role in enforcing civil rights laws in public education. The DOE should provide districts with model enrollment forms and conduct regular audits to ensure compliance.

Fair Lawn School District (PDF) in Bergen County, Jersey City Global Charter School (PDF) in Hudson County, Jamesburg School District (PDF) and Spotswood School District (PDF) in Middlesex County, and Port Republic School District (PDF) in Atlantic County each prevent the enrollment of immigrant students by requiring identification that someone without a Social Security number or valid immigration status cannot obtain.

ACLU-NJ’s lawsuits ask the courts to halt these unconstitutional school registration requirements immediately. The organization calls on the State DOE to monitor such policies vigilantly and to take swift action against schools that violate it.

“The ACLU of New Jersey can’t play a perpetual game of whack-a-mole with New Jersey school districts, and we shouldn’t have to,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “It’s the job of the Department of Education to make sure New Jersey school districts are following the Constitution, and they must take that duty seriously. The law is clear: schools cannot discriminate, and they should be held accountable when they do.”

Specifically, the districts required documents from parents that are not available to undocumented immigrants:

  • Spotswood, Port Republic – Driver’s licenses
  • Jamesburg – New Jersey-issued driver’s license
  • Fair Lawn – Driver’s licenses and automobile registration
  • Jersey City Global Charter School – “State ID”

These four school districts and one charter school have maintained their discriminatory policies despite the ACLU-NJ’s repeated warnings over the years that these restrictions violate students’ rights and make the districts vulnerable to legal action. 

Stemming in part from ACLU-NJ surveys and lawsuits, the United States Departments of Education and Justice in 2014 jointly wrote a letter to school districts across the country emphasizing that the Constitution requires equal access to public education for all students. The guidance specified that requiring driver’s licenses during the enrollment process is impermissible. In 2010, the State DOE issued guidance (PDF) to districts making clear that practices that chill enrollment of immigrant children are forbidden. However, given the recurrence of districts that violate civil rights, the ACLU-NJ believes the DOE needs to go much further.

“Especially in our current climate, schoolchildren and their families deserve assurance that their schools will not discriminate against them because of their immigration status,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “If the DOE won’t act, we will. We cannot stand quietly by and let districts discriminate. The Christie Administration needs to do its job and take action to stop this unlawful, harmful discrimination.”

In 2014, the ACLU-NJ discovered that 136 school districts imposed illegal barriers to immigrant student enrollment and wrote letters asking them to comply with the law. More than 100 changed their policies, but 27 others did not. The ACLU-NJ sued the seven districts with the most severe policies. A few months before that, the ACLU-NJ had filed a lawsuit against the Butler School District when the school district refused to end its policy, and the district ultimately agreed to drop the restrictions.

A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, forbids school districts from excluding children from enrolling based on their or their parents’ immigration status. New Jersey has two requirements that families must meet when attempting to enroll a child in public school: proof of age and proof of in-district residency. Both federal and state law and regulations dictate that schools cannot ask about a students’ immigration status, or, further, discriminate based on national origin or immigration status. 

Read the lawsuits online (all PDF files):

Suspect in Bombings Has a Right to a Lawyer

September 26, 2016
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Prosecutors deny right to counsel for Ahmad Khan Rahami, suspect in Seaside Park and Chelsea bombings

Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Union County Prosecutor’s Office continue to improperly deny criminal defendant Ahmad Khan Rahami the right to an attorney, the ACLU-NJ said today. The ACLU-NJ is working with public defenders to secure them access to their client. To ensure the protection of the right of counsel, until Rahami’s federal public defenders are able to represent him, the ACLU-NJ is serving as Rahami’s legal counsel on federal charges.

“The right of an accused person to have an attorney is a fundamental, undeniable right, regardless of the charges,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “It’s extremely disturbing that Mr. Rahami’s lawyers have not been able to verify their client’s health condition, including his level of consciousness. No one’s interests are protected when law enforcement attempts to circumvent the constitution.”

Rahami has been in Newark’s University Hospital since shortly after authorities took him into custody, and according to media reports he is unconscious. The Union County Prosecutor has prevented his local public defender from checking on his client’s condition, based on arguments that Rahami’s reported lack of consciousness means the arrest warrant has not been executed. The U.S. Attorney General’s Office maintains that Rahami is not yet in federal custody and therefore he is not yet entitled to legal counsel.

“It is outrageous that Mr. Rahami has been in custody for a week yet has been denied the right to have an attorney visit him to confirm his condition and protect his constitutional rights,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “Mr. Rahami, like all criminal defendants, has a right to a lawyer. Denying a defendant the right to counsel violates the Constitution and needlessly sacrifices civil liberties in the name of national security. ”

Rahami has been charged by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and U.S. attorneys in New Jersey and New York with crimes stemming from the Sept. 17 bombings and his other activities.

Bergen Man Close to Victory in Ending Unconstitutional Sign Limits

September 22, 2016
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Policies restricting when people can put political signs on lawns are common but unconstitutional

After a four-year effort, a Bergen County man is close to winning his battle over lawn signs. The Wyckoff Township Committee has introduced a measure that would put its currently unconstitutional sign restrictions, which forbid political signs for more than a month at a time, in line with the law.

The ACLU-NJ, working on behalf of Wyckoff resident Stan Goodman, sent a letter (PDF) that persuaded the Township Committee to change the unconstitutional ordinance. On June 28, police officers came to his door with his lawn signs for candidate Joshua Gottheimer in-hand and told Goodman’s wife that the signs violated the town’s ordinance. After trying to resolve it through meeting with town officials, Goodman called ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, who had helped Goodman with the town’s sign restrictions in the past.

“When police come to your door and tell you to take down signs about your beliefs, it intimidates a community into silence,” said Stan Goodman. “This ordinance went much further than legislating aesthetics – it made people afraid to express themselves under the First Amendment. Someone had to do something, so I felt I had to step forward. I’m grateful that Wyckoff community members will now feel free to display their beliefs without fear of punishment.”

The ordinance had prohibited residents from posting political signs for more than a month at a time, and in Goodman’s case, police told him to remove the signs because it was more than a month before the election. In additions, signs could not be within 25 feet of the curb nor more than four square feet in size. The proposed amendment (PDF) would remove limits based on time and size, and it would ease the 25-foot rule. The remaining restrictions relate almost entirely to issues of public safety and public property.

“In towns throughout New Jersey, officials don’t realize that no matter what ordinance they may have on the books, no local policy can override the Constitution,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Year after year, we hear from residents about sign restrictions that go too far. Towns across the state need to review their sign ordinances to make sure they don’t include unlawful restrictions, because if they do, there’s a good chance they’ll hear from the ACLU.”

Goodman challenged the town’s enforcement of the sign ordinance in 2012 with the ACLU-NJ’s help, and for a time the town stopped enforcing it. To rally against a 600,000-square-foot residential living facility planned for Christian Health Care Center, Goodman and other community members put out lawn signs that said, “Save Wyckoff – Stop the Vista.” A town official told the local press that the signs violated Wyckoff’s ordinance and that each sign carried a $500 fine, even though hundreds of lawns displayed them. Goodman first contacted the ACLU-NJ then. LoCicero sent a letter explaining that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The ACLU-NJ was forced to send another letter this summer when it learned that it was enforcing the sign ordinance.

“This ordinance might seem unimportant on a surface level, but it deals with the most serious principles we hold as Americans,” Goodman said. “People want a sense that they’re not alone in their opinions, and I have seen the unifying power of lawn signs to galvanize a movement. In 2012, Wyckoff residents saw with their own eyes that concerns about development were more widespread than they may have known, and it gave them the courage to speak out. I am extremely glad that our town has chosen to let that spirit of community flourish rather than chilling it with unconstitutional restrictions.”

Many New Jersey municipalities have laws on the books placing time-based restrictions on political signs without knowing that the Constitution forbids it, and the ACLU-NJ has challenged such ordinances, both in this election cycle representing a Donald Trump supporter in West Long Branch and in previous cycles.

A vote on the final ordinance is expected to take place at the Wyckoff Township Committee’s October 4 meeting. The draft ordinance (PDF), 2016 letter (PDF), and 2012 letter (PDF) can be read online. If your town has an unconstitutional restriction on political signs or you need help with your voting rights, contact the ACLU-NJ.

Arrests Targeting Sex Work Threaten Public Health and Safety

September 12, 2016
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Newark sweep part of increase in aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses

The ACLU of New Jersey expressed concerns about the Newark Police Department’s arrest of 13 people on charges of prostitution and solicitation of prostitution. The arrests over the weekend appear to be a part of a recent increase in the arrest of Newark residents for low level violations and so-called “quality-of-life” offenses, such as panhandling, bicycle violations, littering and disorderly conduct.

The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:

Udi Ofer

“The Newark Police Department’s 13 arrests on charges related to prostitution over the weekend raise concerns yet again about Newark’s embrace of failed and destructive 'Broken Windows' policing strategies. Using our criminal justice system to harass, arrest and incarcerate consenting adults who agree to exchange sex for money is a poor use of the NPD’s limited resources.

“These arrests harm public health by stigmatizing sex workers and making their lives more difficult and dangerous. These crackdowns harm public safety by stoking fear of police among sex workers, dissuading vulnerable communities from reaching out to police to report abuses.

"The NPD’s renewed focus on aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses runs counter to community-oriented policing, which should rely on alternatives to arrest and prosecution for low-level offenses like these. We urge the City to explore harm reduction in the interest of public health and to reject failed approaches of criminalization.

“The aggressive enforcement of low level offenses and implementation of a Broken Windows style policing philosophy in Newark run counter to a community-oriented policing model. The City of Newark should respond to complaints received from community members by focusing its resources on conditions that have led to situations where residents may turn to panhandling or sex work as a source of income, and not by arresting residents.

“Sex work should not be criminalized, but as long as it is still criminalized in Newark, the police department should choose to sow trust among the community rather than alienate some of the most vulnerable members whose actions should not be considered a crime to begin with.”

The ACLU-NJ issued a five-point blueprint earlier this summer emphasizing the most significant steps to rein in abuses among police departments, including decriminalizing low-level offenses and rejecting Broken Windows policing. In July, the ACLU-NJ also laid out its reasons for opposing the criminalization of sex work in a Star-Ledger op-ed.

Hudson Prosecutor Routinely Violates Rights in Forfeitures

September 8, 2016
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Hudson County Prosecutor forces people to pay $175 fee to challenge seizures as low as $11

The Hudson County Prosecutor's Office routinely deprives people of due process after their property has been seized, the ACLU-NJ said today in a court filing (PDF) challenging the county's civil asset forfeiture practices. The County Prosecutor's Office unlawfully combines unrelated civil asset forfeiture cases together, resulting in court fees that often exceed the value of the property taken, making it nearly impossible for people to challenge the seizures.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process that allows law enforcement to seize any assets that they suspect may be connected with a crime, even if a person is never charged with any crime. The prosecutor can then file a civil suit to keep the property.

"The Hudson County Prosecutor's Office has made it difficult, and in many cases virtually impossible, for people to challenge the seizure of their property," said ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Rebecca Livengood. "The Prosecutor's Office has abdicated its duty to respect the rights of New Jerseyans — especially those with the fewest resources to begin with — in a blatant affront to due process."

The ACLU-NJ represents Jermaine Mitchell, whom the Hudson County Prosecutor sued in order to keep $171 taken from him during an arrest; the court fees to challenge the seizure were $175. In this case, the Hudson County Prosecutor combined together 20 different defendants into one court case, even though each person's seizure had nothing to do with any others. Although this practice is routine in Hudson County, New Jersey law only allows cases to be joined together when they involve the same "transaction or occurrence."

By combining multiple forfeitures into one lawsuit, the county meets the $15,000 requirement to bring a case in the Law Division of Superior Court rather than the Special Civil Part, a court established to hear smaller controversies. While the Special Civil Part imposes much lower fees to respond, the Law Division sets a fixed fee of $175. No other county in New Jersey engages in such a practice to the ACLU-NJ's knowledge.

"A personal injury lawyer can't bundle five unrelated car accident cases into one single lawsuit, and the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office can't illegally combine multiple civil asset forfeiture suits into one simply because it makes it cheaper and easier to seize people's property," Livengood said.

The ACLU-NJ recently issued a police reform blueprint that recommended ending civil asset forfeiture in New Jersey, given the incentives policing for profit creates to abuse police authority. The practice disproportionately harms people in poverty, who are more likely to be stopped and frisked on the street and who cannot afford to challenge seizures or to hire private attorneys to fight for their seized assets. Someone in poverty may have a public defender for a criminal case, but currently no legal service providers in New Jersey provide free representation to low-income defendants in civil forfeiture cases.

The papers Mitchell received on how to challenge the forfeiture included a list of 11 supposed options for low-cost legal representation, but not one of the organizations on the list could have provided legal help for forfeiture cases. Indeed, one organization was shut down in 2012 for fraudulently pretending to provide legal services.

"Almost no one is going to spend more money to get property back than what that property is worth," said Livengood. "Based on even the slightest suspicion of involvement in a crime, the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office can take a person's property and slam the door on any attempts to get it back."

According to public records, Hudson County has the highest number of civil asset forfeitures in New Jersey by far, even in comparison to more populated counties. One action in February 2016 combined forfeiture cases against 63 people. One 2015 seizure included in a case combined with 28 others, police took $11 from a person; it would have cost them a minimum of $164 to get $11 back.

"The case of Jermaine Mitchell is a textbook example of why civil asset forfeiture needs to be scrapped in New Jersey," said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Counsel Ari Rosmarin. "Our legal system should protect the rights of New Jersey communities, not shake them down for revenue."

The request for interlocutory review (PDF) filed in the Appellate Division today asks the court to allow Mitchell to challenge the forfeiture. An earlier ruling that rejected his motion to dismiss contradicted New Jersey law, according to today's filing from the ACLU-NJ.

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Quarantined Nurse Can Move Forward With Part of Suit Against Christie

September 8, 2016
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Christie and his administration must show that they acted in good faith

Kaci Hickox, the nurse who was quarantined against her will in a makeshift tent in Newark after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, will be able to continue her state claims against Governor Chris Christie and his administration. A federal court judge ruled that under New Jersey law, Hickox has the right to challenge the involuntary detention. Governor Christie, along with others responsible for her detention, will be subject to the discovery process, including depositions. Hickox was held in a makeshift tent in an unheated parking garage despite showing no valid symptoms of Ebola for three days in October 2014.

“One thing is certain: this decision vindicates my rights by giving me the opportunity to find out from Governor Christie directly whether the decision to detain me was motivated by science or by politics,” Kaci Hickox said. “Christie was ultimately responsible for my detention, and he should have to answer for it and show it was made in good faith.”

The decision (PDF), issued by United States District Court Judge Kevin McNulty, compels Christie and the other New Jersey officials responsible for the quarantine to demonstrate that their decision was made in “good faith.” Therefore, the case will seek to determine where the quarantine was based on medical and scientific reasons rather than political ones.

“This decision means Kaci Hickox will continue her fight to hold Governor Christie and New Jersey officials accountable for their decision to detain her,” said Steve Hyman of McLaughlin and Stern. “Kaci Hickox will have her day in court.”

Represented by the ACLU-NJ, as well as the New York law firms Siegel Teitelbaum & Evans and McLaughlin & Stern, Hickox in March filed a brief that contended the quarantine imposed by Governor Chris Christie, then-Commissioner of Health Mary O’Dowd and other health department officials violated Hickox’s “clearly established” constitutional rights to have freedom from unlawful seizure, freedom from unnecessary restraints, and due process of law.

“Kaci Hickox deserves the right to know why the Governor held her against her will, and now she will have that opportunity,” said Norman Siegel of Siegel Teitelbaum & Evans. “The decision to take away someone’s freedom is one of the gravest an official can make.”

The decision lets Hickox move forward on her claims under state law. That includes a claim against Gov. Christie for stating publicly that she was “obviously ill” when she was not. However, her challenges under federal law were dismissed. The judge held that the defendants have qualified immunity from claims raised under federal law because her rights in this instance were not “clearly established.”

“Kaci Hickox can’t undo the loss of liberty and dehumanizing treatment she experienced under the orders of Governor Christie, but she can demand answers about whether the Christie administration truly believed her detention was medically justified,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas.

The decision also acknowledged that irrational fears can surround medical scares such as the panic concerning Ebola at the time Hickox returned to the United States from Sierra Leone.

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Bail Rules Mean Poor People Will Languish in Jail

August 31, 2016
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ACLU-NJ and Other Groups Instrumental to Bail Reform ‘Disappointed’ With NJ Supreme Court’s Regulations for Law

Newly adopted rules (PDF) for New Jersey’s bail reform law undermine the potential of bail reform, said the five groups that by statute serve in an advisory role for implementing the 2014 law. Under the rules adopted by the New Jersey Supreme Court yesterday, thousands of New Jerseyans will continue to languish in jail while awaiting trial for no reason other than being poor. The intention of the bail reform law was to ensure that bail in New Jersey was risk-based rather than based on ability to pay.

The five groups that serve in an official advisory role — the ACLU-NJ, Drug Policy Alliance, Latino Action Network, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and New Jersey Institute for Social Justice — expressed extreme disappointment at the New Jersey Supreme Court’s newly codified bail reform regulations.

All five had earlier submitted recommendations to prevent unnecessary detention, and each testified before the New Jersey Supreme Court in June 2016 saying that the success of bail reform in addressing pretrial injustices would be dictated by the strength of these court rules. The Supreme Court failed to adopt any of the groups’ significant proposals, putting the reach of the bail reform law in jeopardy. The groups will remain vigilant in ensuring that, despite these rules, New Jerseyans will ultimately have use of the rights promised by the bail reform law.

The following statement may be attributed to Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU of New Jersey:

“To fix the grave injustices the bail reform law sought to address, we needed court rules that would grant defendants fair treatment before they could be detained and that promised them a speedy trial. The new rules jeopardize both guarantees. Under the court rules, New Jerseyans may end up being incarcerated for more than two years awaiting trial, perpetuating the very problem the law aimed to fix.”

The following statement may be attributed to Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director, Drug Policy Alliance:

“Without even giving the system created by the Legislature a chance, the New Jersey Supreme Court has made it easier to incarcerate people pending trial. As advocates for bail reform, we value the words of the United States Supreme Court: ‘liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.’ In issuing these bail reform rules, the New Jersey Supreme Court failed to limit that exception, and instead expanded it.”

The following statement may be attributed to Richard Smith, President, NAACP New Jersey State Conference:

“The bail reform law promised to get defendants — who are presumed innocent — to trial more quickly. As the bill progressed through the Legislature and to the Governor’s desk, New Jerseyans believed that every defendant would be tried as quickly as possible, without exception. The New Jersey Supreme Court has demolished that expectation, striking a blow at the heart of the bail reform law. The court transformed the hard limit of two years into little more than an aspiration.”

Read the groups’ earlier bail reform recommendations and the new court rules.

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Police Reform Blueprint Lays Out Platform for Accountability Statewide

August 25, 2016
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ACLU-NJ calls for 5 reforms: independent prosecutors for police violence, stop policing for profit, end enforcement of low-level offenses, fair body cameras, and transparency

Five key reforms could transform policing in New Jersey, the ACLU-NJ said today with the release of a blueprint for statewide police accountability. The ACLU-NJ called on state officials to adopt five key components of accountability into law, emphasizing transparency, accountability, and an end to unnecessarily aggressive over-policing. The reforms also include a call to expand the role of non-police agencies and professionals in handling social problems that do not belong in the criminal justice system to begin with. The policies themselves would be adopted by state officials and apply to individual departments throughout the state. Police Accountability Blueprint

"Together, these five policy reforms make up a blueprint for protecting the rights — and lives — of all people in our state," said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou. "With every new human tragedy that arises from unaccountable policing, we see the same common links: aggressive policing of Black communities and little accountability or oversight. Like the rest of the country, New Jersey faces an epidemic of aggressive enforcement and a drought of public accountability. In New Jersey, we aim to change that."

The ACLU-NJ's blueprint highlights five key statewide policy proposals that together would usher in a new era of accountability throughout the state:

  • Independent prosecutors and investigations when officers kill or seriously injure people
  • Body cameras for police, only with public access to the footage and privacy protections
  • An end to policing of low-level offenses such as panhandling, disorderly conduct, and marijuana possession, and addressing such behaviors outside the police and criminal justice system, which aren't equipped to handle the root social and/or economical causes of many low-level offenses
  • Ending civil asset forfeiture seizures in which police unfairly take people's property
  • Transparency through the collection and public release of data from police departments

"Anything short of major statewide solutions for problems nearly every department in the state has will turn police reform into a game of whack-a-mole played with hundreds of Jersey police departments," said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. "The Legislature, Attorney General, and Governor all have work to do. Police departments can't police themselves. New Jerseyans deserve police that will respect their rights, be transparent, and be held accountable when they engage in misconduct or abuse." 

The ACLU-NJ has found problems in departments statewide with over-aggressive, racially disparate enforcement of low-level offenses, and indicators of enforcement motivated by the potential profits from civil asset forfeiture. As New Jersey departments acquire body-worn cameras, the Attorney General's rules for departments' use of cameras deprive the public of the right to access footage, which renders the cameras as tools of management and surveillance, rather than accountability. 

A 2015 ACLU-NJ study of low-level offenses (PDF) found deep racial disparities in enforcement in four New Jersey cities and towns. The ACLU-NJ also found extremely poor data collection and transparency in the four municipal police departments studied. One department not included in the report kept such inadequate records that it made studying its practices impossible.

"All too often police officers are called upon to address behaviors that shouldn't involve the police in the first place. And all too often these interactions escalate into serious instances of police violence, such as in the cases of Eric Garner and Philando Castile," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. "New Jersey needs a new law enforcement paradigm where the police aren't forced to deal with behaviors that should never involve the police in the first place. Forcing a criminal justice solution onto problems the police are not equipped to handle has resulted in uneven, unjust enforcement and the criminalization of poverty and mental illness. New Jersey is capable of change, and now is the time to do it."

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