NEWARK – In a groundbreaking ruling in an American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey case, a New Jersey judge found that people convicted of crimes as juveniles cannot be sentenced to de facto life without the possibility of parole without carefully considering the role their youth played in their crimes.
The case involved James Comer, who was sentenced at age 17 to serve 75 years in prison, more than 68 without parole. Essex County Superior Court Judge Thomas R. Vena in a ruling Friday, May 8, concurred with the ACLU-NJ that because Comer will be 86 years old when he first becomes eligible for a parole hearing, he had effectively been serving a life sentence. As a result of the ruling, Comer will be resentenced.
“The judge adopted the Supreme Court’s axiomatic observation that children are not just miniature adults. The unique nature of their brain chemistry requires that they be treated differently than adults,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “This ruling clearly affirms that before a court can condemn a child to die in prison, it must consider the things about youth that make these extreme sentences so ill-suited to juveniles.”
The ACLU-NJ argued that a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions proscribed courts from sentencing minors to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, including de facto life sentences. Consistent with these cases, Comer’s resentencing will take into account the immaturity and impetuousness that accompanies youth; his home environment at the time; the circumstances of the offense, the deficiencies of young people in handling real-world functions, such as dealing with attorneys or police officers; and the possibility of Comer’s rehabilitation.
While the judge did not share the interpretation that the Supreme Court’s rulings amounted to an absolute rejection of life sentences of minors, the judge did rule that Comer’s sentence was unconstitutional because the judge failed to factor in the hallmark factors of youth involved in his crime.
“This ruling gets New Jersey courts one step closer to the reality that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to die in prison,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg of Gibbons P.C., who along with Joseph A. Pace, also of Gibbons P.C., represented Comer on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “The question isn’t whether Comer deserves to be released – the question is whether Comer and other children charged with serious crimes deserve a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as they mature.”
Mr. Comer, now 31 years old, was sentenced in 2003 for his role in four robberies and a felony murder as a juvenile, with no meaningful consideration given to his youth at the time. Felony murder differs from murder in that if a murder is committed during the commission of a crime, everyone involved in that crime is deemed responsible for the murder, even though they did not actually kill or intend to kill. Although he was not the one who pulled the trigger, Comer received a longer sentence than his two accomplices, one who was charged with the actual killing and the other who was an adult.
The resentencing, which has not yet been scheduled, will take place in Essex County. The State plans to appeal Judge Vena’s decision. The decision is available at: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/decisions/State%20v.%20Comer%20OPINION;%2003-01-0231%20PDF.pdf
NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) joined marchers participating in the 250-mile March2Justice tonight at their first stop at a community center in Newark to call for an end to police abuses and for a wholesale reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. The group included nearly 100 activists making their way from Staten Island, New York, to Washington, D.C., in a push for criminal justice reform measures.
“We are at a unique moment in our nation’s history where there is finally widespread attention being given to the problem of police abuses and a broken criminal justice system,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, and one of the speakers at tonight’s rally. “It is fitting for this march, which spans five states, to have its first stop in Newark, a city with a long history of being plagued by police misconduct. It is now time to put an end to racial profiling and other forms of police abuses and to build a criminal justice system that treats all people with dignity and respect.”
A 2014 Department of Justice report, which came in response to an ACLU-NJ petition for a civil rights investigation, found that between 75 percent to 93 percent of all police stops in Newark lack a constitutional basis, as well as widespread racial disparities in stops and arrests and a broken internal affairs system. In response, the ACLU-NJ co-launched a new coalition, Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP), to reform the Newark Police Department. The coalition is pushing for the creation of a strong and independent civilian complaint review board in Newark, which can serve as a model for the rest of the nation. In addition to the ACLU-NJ, the coalition comprises 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP of New Jersey State Conference, New Jersey Communities United, Newark LGBTQ Community Center and People’s Organization for Progress.
“Change starts today with a single step,” said ACLU-NJ Organizer Rashawn Davis, one of the speakers during the evening’s rally in support of March2Justice. “The next eight days represents thousands of people nationwide saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ In Newark, we are working to create a civilian review board and a host of other changes, not just for the betterment of our city, but as a model across the country. Despite recent tragedies, we have something to fight for, something to march for.”
The ACLU-NJ celebrated a groundbreaking victory for New Jersey with the signing of a new law that adds oversight to local law enforcement agencies’ acquisition of surplus military equipment. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed S2364, sponsored by Senator Nia Gill and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, into law on March 16, New Jersey became the first state to require approval from local legislative bodies before municipalities and counties can obtain military equipment through the Department of Defense’s “1033 program.”
"This victory represents a critical step forward for accountability and transparency in our towns and cities,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “For the first time ever, New Jerseyans will have a say in the decisions to acquire military weaponry being made in their name. While war winds down overseas, we must ensure that the flow of millions of dollars’ worth of surplus military weapons and equipment does not turn our communities into battlefields.”
Under the new law, local governing bodies will have to approve these acquisitions before towns can receive them. In recent decades, New Jersey law enforcement agencies have acquired nearly $33 million’s worth of military equipment, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and assault rifles, among other inventory.
In July 2014, Bergen County came under fire for seeking two mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, and the ACLU-NJ mobilized Bergen County activists against the move. Ultimately, the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department withdrew the request.
In addition to signing S2364, Governor Christie conditionally vetoed S2365, a companion bill that would have given the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General additional oversight over the transfer of military equipment from the federal government to New Jersey counties and towns.
“The increasing militarization of police departments is a civil rights and liberties problem across the United States,” Rosmarin added. “We are proud that New Jersey is the first state in the nation to enact a law of this kind calling on local elected officials and community members to curb the growing militarization of local cops. The Governor’s decision to veto S2365, however, was a disappointment. Boosting transparency and establishing robust state-level oversight remain priorities and we look forward to working with legislative leaders and the administration to find a path forward toward accountability."
The ACLU has identified significant civil rights and civil liberties threats from the militarization of local police departments, as documented in the report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” It found that nearly 80 percent of SWAT team deployments were for executing search warrants, and it reported on racial disparities in SWAT raids. Other states, including Massachusetts, are currently considering similar legislation adding oversight to local jurisdictions’ acquisition of military equipment.
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:
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:
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.
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:
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.