The ACLU of New Jersey has filed a lawsuit (PDF) against the West New York Police Department on behalf of a man who was arrested in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech after filming police officers arresting two teenagers.
The ACLU-NJ is challenging Cesar Sanchez’s arrest on charges of obstructing the administration of law based on Sanchez’s filming of the police and his refusal to provide identification. The First Amendment allows people to film the police unobtrusively. The municipal prosecutor in West New York has already dropped the charges against Sanchez, having determined that no probable cause existed to justify the arrest.
“It’s a strange experience to expect to spend an evening at home after work and instead wind up in jail, all for doing something that the Constitution protects,” said Sanchez. “I’m filing this lawsuit so no one else in West New York has their freedom taken away for exercising their First Amendment right to film the police to begin with.”
When Sanchez, a West New York resident, saw police forcefully arresting two teenagers on his way home from work in July, he pointed his cellphone camera and hit record. The officers unlawfully ordered him to put away his phone. He initially demurred but complied when one of the officers approached him. However, when the police asked for identification, he opted to exercise his legal right to refuse. The police then arrested him, in retaliation for filming the scene lawfully and for declining to show his identification despite the police’s lack of justification to request it.
The lawsuit explains that West New York has a duty to create affirmative policies allowing filming of police and to properly train its officers that filming the police in public is a legal, constitutionally protected activity. Sanchez has asked in his filing for the town to take steps to proactively establish protections for people peacefully filming officers in public. Currently, West New York has no policies on its books affirming the right of people to film police.
“Cellphone cameras have become a common tool for holding police accountable, but unfortunately, the knowledge that it’s perfectly legal to film officers in public hasn’t spread as rapidly,” said ACLU-NJ attorney Rebecca Livengood, who represents Sanchez. “Officers already know that cellphone cameras have become the new normal, and now they need to accept that people have the right to use their devices to film police.”
Earlier this year, the ACLU of New Jersey released Mobile Justice, a smartphone application available on Apple and Android devices that allows users to record police interactions and send them to the ACLU to monitor for possible rights violations. The app also informs users of their rights when interacting with police.
“We the people may know our rights, but the police must uphold those rights for democracy to work,” said Livengood. “West New York needs to adopt a policy that promises the public that the police will respect our freedoms, even the ones – or especially the ones – that they would prefer we not exercise.”
In 2012, the ACLU-NJ won a successful settlement on behalf of Khaliah Fitchette, a Newark teenager who was held in a police car and arrested after filming police officers while she was riding a city bus.
The complaint is captioned Sanchez v. Town of West New York. Mobile Justice is available for free on Android and Apple iOS platforms.
NEWARK - On the most important civil liberties issues facing the 216th Legislature, a majority in the General Assembly voted with the ACLU of New Jersey at least 90 percent of the time.
The first-ever ACLU-NJ legislative scorecard tracks the records of Assembly members on 13 key issues votes during the legislative session that began Jan. 2014. In the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, in which Assembly members are at the top of the ticket, the ACLU-NJ is releasing a scorecard of those votes to educate the public at large as well as its 20,000 members and donors who live in every single legislative district in the state. The information can be found online at https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard. It includes a table showing how every Assembly member voted on the issues and allows users to learn details about the scored bills, compare Assembly members’ voting records, find out who made the Honor Roll, and look up scores for legislative districts and an interactive map of New Jersey.
“The good news is that most Assembly members vote for civil liberties and civil rights most of the time. The bad news is that our elected officials aren’t always there when it counts, like with the bill to allow transgender New Jerseyans access to birth certificates that reflect their true gender,” said Ari Rosmarin, ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director. “With this kind of sound information, civil rights voters can hold elected officials accountable because they know where their representatives stand on the key issues of the day when they go to the polls.”
Of the hundreds of bills the Legislature considered, the ACLU-NJ identified 13 votes as the most central to civil rights and civil liberties, including legislation to:
Out of New Jersey’s 80 Assembly members, 32 – or 40 percent – made the ACLU-NJ’s Honor Roll, with ratings of 100 percent.
The lowest rating belonged to Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin (R-Brick) at 38 percent. Eight other members of the Assembly scored below 50 percent and also earned a spot on the ACLU-NJ’s less-than 50 percent list.
“Above all, this scorecard is a tool for public accountability. We created it to allow New Jerseyans to learn where their lawmakers stand on key issues involving our rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We’re here to ensure those who have taken a stand for our fundamental civil rights continue to act in defense of our rights and liberties, and we’re here to put pressure on those who need a refresher in what it means to defend the rights of the people. Our goal is for every elected official to achieve a 100 percent rating. Even more importantly, our goal is for every resident of New Jersey to know where their representatives stand.”
The ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor important votes as the Legislature returns for its biennial lame-duck session after the election and before the 217th Legislature is convened in January. An updated scorecard, including scores for the Senate, will mark the end of the legislative term.
Visit https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard to read the scorecard online, look up legislative districts, compare Assembly members on an interactive map of New Jersey, and learn about the details of the scored bills in more detail.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today applauded a court decision today that ensures the right of Muslim New Jerseyans to challenge the New York Police Department surveillance program that appeared to target them based solely on their religious beliefs. The decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit sided with individuals, associations, and businesses represented by Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights, and reinstated the case in which the ACLU-NJ and Rutgers School of Law-Newark Constitutional Rights Clinic filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of numerous civil rights organizations. The opinion rejected a lower court opinion issued in February 2014 that had erroneously held that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue and accepted at face value the government’s unsupported rationale for the spying.
As explained by the Court: “What occurs here in one guise is not new. We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind. We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight — that ‘loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not race, creed, or color.’”
The following statement is from Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey.
“The ACLU-NJ commends the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for reinstating the case against the NYPD’s discriminatory spying program. It appears the agency spied on Muslim individuals, mosques, and Muslim-owned businesses based solely on religion. Our Constitution forbids such discriminatory actions.
“Widespread discriminatory policies against religious and ethnic minorities have occurred before in our country, but we look back on such actions with regret, as we will here. The opinion today rightly overturned a ruling that would have denied individuals the right to challenge patently unconstitutional discrimination. When the government profiles an entire group of people based solely on a characteristic such as ethnicity or religion, affected individuals are due their day in court, which will now happen. We look forward to the next steps in this important case.”
NEWARK – As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie prepares to announce his candidacy today for president of the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) reissued its report card on his first term in office.
Christie earned a grade of D+ for his record on civil liberties and civil rights. Now into his second term, Christie not only continues his poor performance, but raises new concerns about his record on key matters of constitutional rights.
“As Americans begin to consider candidates for the presidency, it is vitally important that they are informed about their candidates’ records on constitutional rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We hope that this guide will help voters become more informed about Governor Christie’s stance on key civil liberties and civil rights issues.”
The ACLU-NJ report card graded Christie on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties matters: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice.
“Governor Christie’s record on civil liberties and civil rights has been a poor one,” said Ofer. “Some of his most frustrating moments have been those times when he paid lip service to the protection of rights but failed to back up words with actions. For gay and lesbian New Jerseyans seeking to marry, sick patients in need of medical marijuana, or New Jerseyans seeking to learn basic information about their state government, the Christie administration has been a failure.”
Christie’s lowest grades were in the areas of transparency, separation of church and state, and separation of powers. The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion. Following are some highlights (and lowlights).
Christie’s second-term has raised other civil liberties and rights concerns. He has opposed early, in-person voting, dismissing it as an attempt at voter fraud despite the lack of evidence to support such claims. And eight months ago his administration issued an order requiring the detention of medical workers returning from one of three West African countries where they treated Ebola patients, even if they were asymptomatic. The decision was widely criticized by the medical community following the detention of a nurse, Kaci Hickox, at Newark Liberty International Airport. In the face of public pressure, he eventually released Hickox.
Finally, Christie has repeatedly stated that the Patriot Act does not violate civil liberties, despite the fact that numerous federal courts have found provisions of the Act to be unconstitutional and to violate civil liberties.
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 – 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.
NEWARK -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Trenton Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People today called on the Trenton Downtown Association to meet with the organizations to discuss restoring a mural paying homage to Michael Brown, the teen who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo.
The storefront mural was erased last month by the city’s graffiti sandblasting equipment, apparently after the Trenton Police Department complained to the downtown association -- which commissioned the artist who painted the mural -- that the image sent the wrong message.
The mural showed Brown’s face, with stars and stripes on the shoulders of his clothing, and the words, “Sagging pants is not probable cause.”
“We believe the removal was improper both as a matter of policy and law,” the organizations said in a joint letter addressed to the Mayor, the Chief of Police and the executive director of the Downtown Association. “The mural presented an issue of significant public importance and a message that should have been embraced by officials as an opportunity for positive communication between the public and the police. Instead, the Association quite literally ’whitewashed’ the mural, its message and any opportunity it presented.”
In addition to the letter, the organizations filed Open Public Records Act requests for emails between and among the police, downtown association and the mayor’s office.
“While some Trenton police officers might have viewed the mural as sending the wrong message, it was not overtly or inherently anti-police,” ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas said. “Rather than silencing the artist, this could have been a springboard for community discussion about improving police-community relations.”
The mural was painted on the metal pull-down door of a vacant business, and according to news accounts, covered over an illegal liquor ad.
The artist, Will "Kasso" Condry, said he was approached by the downtown authority to paint a mural of his choosing. He chose the subject in consultation with peers at the SAGE Coalition, an artists’ collective that has been commissioned to paint more than a dozen murals around Mercer County.
“At this important moment in history, with so much attention being paid to police practices, it’s important to foster discussions in our community, not to suppress the opinions of one group or another,” NAACP Trenton branch president Jonette Smart said.
The letter also explains that the sandblasting of the mural interfered with the free speech of both the artist who painted it and the community which has a right to view the mural and its message.
This Halloween the staff at the ACLU of New Jersey share what spooks them when it comes to defending our civil liberties. The videos below will serve content from youtube.com. YouTube's privacy statment. ACLU-NJ's privacy statement.
ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg is frightened that voter suppression laws will take away her right to vote.
The New Jersey Supreme Court today issued a decision (PDF) holding that it was improper for the State to submit rap lyrics to a jury in a criminal case where the lyrics were not directly connected to the crime itself. The Court recognized rap lyrics – including violent and profane rap lyrics – as a form of artistic expression, but one that many people find distasteful, which could improperly prejudice a jury who reads them.
“From cave paintings to Johnny Cash to Game of Thrones, the history of art reflects all elements of society, including violent ones,” said Ezra Rosenberg of Dechert LLP, cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “Stripping a creative work of its context is a poor method for prosecuting crimes, and the Court was correct to determine Skinner’s lyrics had little probative value to the charges he faced, but could highly prejudice a jury against him. The inferences drawn from rap lyrics in particular, as opposed to other works, highlight the danger that racial bias may play in the American criminal justice system.”
The ACLU-NJ filed an amicus brief in the appeal of Vonte Skinner, who was convicted of murder based in large part on rap lyrics he had written entirely before the crime in question had taken place. The State never asserted that the lyrics provided direct evidence regarding the crime, nor did the State prove that the lyrics were anything but fictionalized expressions. Rather, the State submitted the lyrics to the jury as evidence of a general motive and intent.
In its brief to the Court, the ACLU-NJ argued that rap lyrics are artistic expressions protected by the First Amendment, and that the use of such writings in the criminal context can chill freedom of speech. The ACLU-NJ therefore sought a rule that would limit the circumstances under which artistic expression could be used as evidence. Today’s ruling did just that.
The Court recognized that violent rap lyrics, although found by some to be distasteful, are artistic works and that authorship itself doesn’t imply that the writer has acted in a manner consistent with the content. The Court importantly noted that we don’t presume Bob Marley shot a sheriff or that Edgar Allan Poe buried someone under his floorboards.
The Court wrote: “Without a strong connection to the attempted murder offense with which defendant was charged, the admission of defendant’s rap lyrics risked unduly prejudicing the jury without much, if any, probative value. … Extreme caution must be exercised when expressive work is involved, particularly when such expression involves social commentary, exaggeration, and fictional accounts.”
The Court continued: “In conclusion, we hold that rap lyrics, or like fictional material, may not be used as evidence of motive and intent except when such material has a direct connection to the specifics of the offense for which it is offered in evidence and the evidence’s probative value is not outweighed by its apparent prejudice.”
“The ACLU-NJ is extremely pleased that the New Jersey Supreme Court placed proper limits on the State’s use of rap lyrics that have little probative value to a case, but that can highly prejudice a jury,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Free expression includes the right to speak about violence or crime, whether tastefully presented or otherwise.”