The ACLU of New Jersey has filed a lawsuit (PDF) against the West New York Police Department on behalf of a man who was arrested in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech after filming police officers arresting two teenagers.
The ACLU-NJ is challenging Cesar Sanchez’s arrest on charges of obstructing the administration of law based on Sanchez’s filming of the police and his refusal to provide identification. The First Amendment allows people to film the police unobtrusively. The municipal prosecutor in West New York has already dropped the charges against Sanchez, having determined that no probable cause existed to justify the arrest.
“It’s a strange experience to expect to spend an evening at home after work and instead wind up in jail, all for doing something that the Constitution protects,” said Sanchez. “I’m filing this lawsuit so no one else in West New York has their freedom taken away for exercising their First Amendment right to film the police to begin with.”
When Sanchez, a West New York resident, saw police forcefully arresting two teenagers on his way home from work in July, he pointed his cellphone camera and hit record. The officers unlawfully ordered him to put away his phone. He initially demurred but complied when one of the officers approached him. However, when the police asked for identification, he opted to exercise his legal right to refuse. The police then arrested him, in retaliation for filming the scene lawfully and for declining to show his identification despite the police’s lack of justification to request it.
The lawsuit explains that West New York has a duty to create affirmative policies allowing filming of police and to properly train its officers that filming the police in public is a legal, constitutionally protected activity. Sanchez has asked in his filing for the town to take steps to proactively establish protections for people peacefully filming officers in public. Currently, West New York has no policies on its books affirming the right of people to film police.
“Cellphone cameras have become a common tool for holding police accountable, but unfortunately, the knowledge that it’s perfectly legal to film officers in public hasn’t spread as rapidly,” said ACLU-NJ attorney Rebecca Livengood, who represents Sanchez. “Officers already know that cellphone cameras have become the new normal, and now they need to accept that people have the right to use their devices to film police.”
Earlier this year, the ACLU of New Jersey released Mobile Justice, a smartphone application available on Apple and Android devices that allows users to record police interactions and send them to the ACLU to monitor for possible rights violations. The app also informs users of their rights when interacting with police.
“We the people may know our rights, but the police must uphold those rights for democracy to work,” said Livengood. “West New York needs to adopt a policy that promises the public that the police will respect our freedoms, even the ones – or especially the ones – that they would prefer we not exercise.”
In 2012, the ACLU-NJ won a successful settlement on behalf of Khaliah Fitchette, a Newark teenager who was held in a police car and arrested after filming police officers while she was riding a city bus.
The complaint is captioned Sanchez v. Town of West New York. Mobile Justice is available for free on Android and Apple iOS platforms.
NEWARK – Black people were 9.6 times more likely to be arrested than White people in Jersey City in 2013 for low-level offenses such as loitering, possession of small amounts of marijuana, trespassing, and disorderly conduct, according to a study (PDF) released today by the ACLU of New Jersey.
This extreme racial disparity was not unique to the state’s second largest city. Data for the most recent years available revealed disparities in low-level arrests in the three other municipalities studied – Millville, where Blacks were 6.3 times more likely to be arrested; Elizabeth, 3.4 times; and New Brunswick, 2.6 times. Disparities in the number of arrests between Hispanics/Latinos and Whites also were significant, where data were available. Not all of the departments tracked ethnicity in their arrest data.
“The data reveal a clear pattern of communities of color disproportionately bearing the brunt of police practices that target low-level offenses,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer.
“In Black and Latino communities, New Jerseyans are arrested for minor misbehavior at a much greater rate than in White communities. Unlike more serious crime, where there is a victim or some form of property damage, low-level offenses rest primarily on a police officer’s discretion to arrest for behavior that poses little or no harm to the community. The discretionary nature of these arrests creates ample opportunity for arbitrary and unfair enforcement of the law.”
The origins of this report stem from a 2013 national report by the ACLU that showed Black people in New Jersey were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people, despite similar rates of marijuana use – a clear indicator of selective enforcement.
“New Jersey’s shameful racial disparities in arrests for minor offenses mirror what we’re seeing across the country,” said Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Just as in Ferguson, Minneapolis, Maryland, and beyond, New Jersey police must end this unequal treatment and the harm caused to communities of color.”
The ACLU of NJ, supported by the national ACLU, further examined those findings by taking a closer look at arrest data from four municipalities in New Jersey – Jersey City, Elizabeth, New Brunswick and Millville – that reflected the diversity of the state in population density, demographics and geography.
In the report, the ACLU-NJ examined 10 years of data on the enforcement of four low-level offenses: loitering; marijuana possession of 50 grams or less; defiant trespass; and disorderly conduct. The report chose to examine those arrests because police officers exercise so much discretion in the enforcement of these types of offenses.
The report relied on departmental data for arrests obtained through the Open Public Records Act. The report originally sought to include Asbury Park in the analysis but the Asbury Park Police Department, despite the existence of a data management system and electronic database, was unable to produce records that could be properly analyzed and was dropped from the study.
The report documented widespread and extreme racial disparities in all four locations studied. Among the findings of the report:
The human cost of all of these low-level arrests can be devastating.
“Even though these are low-level offenses, arrests and convictions can impose heavy burdens on the person involved, including payment of court costs and fines; criminal records that will follow them the rest of their lives; and loss of income, housing, child custody, or immigration status,” said Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “In extreme cases, a confrontation with police over a low-level offense can escalate into an episode of deadly violence.”
The report recommends remedies at the local and state level that include changing the policies and practices of police in enforcing the law; improving recordkeeping; and creating greater accountability by police to the civilian population they serve. Among the specific reforms:
The report also calls on the Attorney General to investigate racial disparities in low-level offenses in municipalities throughout the state.
"This study serves as a glimpse into the racial disparities in low-level arrests for only four law-enforcement agencies. But it's clear: Black and Latino communities bear the disproportionate impact of enforcement in New Jersey,” said Ari Rosmarin, Public Policy Director of the ACLU-NJ. “The Attorney General should investigate whether such disparities exist throughout the state, determine the causes of the disparities, and take steps to eliminate them. It's time for action.”
NEWARK - Smartphones have become a game-changing check on police power, and the release of a new video recording app by the ACLU-NJ gives New Jerseyans even more power to document interactions with law enforcement.
As part of a national movement to hold police departments accountable, the ACLU-NJ joins 11 other ACLU affiliates today in launching state-specific versions of Mobile Justice, an app for Android and Apple phones that allows users to record interactions with police and to send them immediately to the ACLU to evaluate for civil rights and civil liberties violations.
“You have the right to film the police, and everyone should feel empowered to exercise that right,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “From Eric Garner to Walter Scott, videos of police encounters have revealed hard truths about biased policing and police brutality. And it’s sparking a movement to reform police practices. This app is designed to place power in the hands of the people and help document police abuses, while hopefully deterring police misconduct from happening in the first place.”
The app has features that allow users to:
The app also contains New Jersey-specific information outlining the rights of individuals when interacting with police.
Videos captured on the Mobile Justice NJ app will be transmitted to the ACLU-NJ and preserved even if the user’s phone is later seized or destroyed.
“The use of mobile phone cameras has permanently changed American policing for the better by shedding light on the prevalence of police abuses, a very real concern in many New Jersey communities, especially in communities of color,” said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “The ACLU is excited New Jerseyans will now have a direct line of contact with us to instantly report when civil rights violations have taken place. Greater police accountability will lead to better policing and safer communities.”
The ACLU of New Jersey released an earlier version of a recording application in 2012, but Mobile Justice has improved upon and expanded that technology.
Mobile Justice NJ is mainly intended for use by bystanders, and users of the app should always make sure to not interfere with police investigations. The ACLU of New Jersey recognizes that some users may want to use it while they are involved in a police encounter. Persons directly interacting with police officers should follow police directions and should not make movements that may put them in danger. Anyone interacting with law enforcement should announce that they are reaching for a phone, and that they are attempting to access the app to record the exchange. Users’ safety depends on their ability to clearly communicate any actions they take and remain calm. If unsure, do not reach for your phone.
NEWARK - Upon President Obama’s visit to Newark to announce initiatives to reform the criminal justice system in the United States, the ACLU-NJ issues a statement praising these efforts and recommending proposals to make the criminal justice system fairer. During his trip to Newark, President Obama will focus primarily on easing prisoners’ reentry into society after incarceration as one part of larger plans to make the criminal justice system more humane.
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“The ACLU of New Jersey welcomes President Barack Obama to Newark, and applauds the leadership of the president, United States Senator Cory Booker, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in fixing our nation's broken criminal justice system. The United States currently holds 2.2 million people in prison, up from fewer than 350,000 in 1972. With five percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
“While New Jersey has worked to reduce its prison population, the state still imprisons far too many people; and they are disproportionately from low-income communities of color. If New Jersey were its own country, it would have the second highest incarceration rate in the world, just behind Cuba. Beyond the high number of prisoners, New Jersey still suffers under the tremendous racial disparity that plagues the criminal justice system across the nation. People from communities of color make up more than three quarters of all prisoners in New Jersey.
“In order to replace this broken system of mass incarceration with a smarter system of criminal justice, transformative change must happen. Our leaders need to tackle every aspect of the criminal justice system, from arrest to reentry. Reforms must include:
“These solutions will ensure that we create a smart justice system, one that is fair and humane, emphasizes prevention, and uses incarceration only as a last resort. We thank President Obama, Senator Booker, and Mayor Baraka for their vision and bold leadership on this vital civil rights issue.”
NEWARK - On the most important civil liberties issues facing the 216th Legislature, a majority in the General Assembly voted with the ACLU of New Jersey at least 90 percent of the time.
The first-ever ACLU-NJ legislative scorecard tracks the records of Assembly members on 13 key issues votes during the legislative session that began Jan. 2014. In the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, in which Assembly members are at the top of the ticket, the ACLU-NJ is releasing a scorecard of those votes to educate the public at large as well as its 20,000 members and donors who live in every single legislative district in the state. The information can be found online at https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard. It includes a table showing how every Assembly member voted on the issues and allows users to learn details about the scored bills, compare Assembly members’ voting records, find out who made the Honor Roll, and look up scores for legislative districts and an interactive map of New Jersey.
“The good news is that most Assembly members vote for civil liberties and civil rights most of the time. The bad news is that our elected officials aren’t always there when it counts, like with the bill to allow transgender New Jerseyans access to birth certificates that reflect their true gender,” said Ari Rosmarin, ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director. “With this kind of sound information, civil rights voters can hold elected officials accountable because they know where their representatives stand on the key issues of the day when they go to the polls.”
Of the hundreds of bills the Legislature considered, the ACLU-NJ identified 13 votes as the most central to civil rights and civil liberties, including legislation to:
Out of New Jersey’s 80 Assembly members, 32 – or 40 percent – made the ACLU-NJ’s Honor Roll, with ratings of 100 percent.
The lowest rating belonged to Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin (R-Brick) at 38 percent. Eight other members of the Assembly scored below 50 percent and also earned a spot on the ACLU-NJ’s less-than 50 percent list.
“Above all, this scorecard is a tool for public accountability. We created it to allow New Jerseyans to learn where their lawmakers stand on key issues involving our rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We’re here to ensure those who have taken a stand for our fundamental civil rights continue to act in defense of our rights and liberties, and we’re here to put pressure on those who need a refresher in what it means to defend the rights of the people. Our goal is for every elected official to achieve a 100 percent rating. Even more importantly, our goal is for every resident of New Jersey to know where their representatives stand.”
The ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor important votes as the Legislature returns for its biennial lame-duck session after the election and before the 217th Legislature is convened in January. An updated scorecard, including scores for the Senate, will mark the end of the legislative term.
Visit https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard to read the scorecard online, look up legislative districts, compare Assembly members on an interactive map of New Jersey, and learn about the details of the scored bills in more detail.
NEWARK -- The ACLU of New Jersey reacted strongly today to the comments made Sunday on Face the Nation by Governor Chris Christie, who wrongly blamed the Black Lives Matter social justice movement for deaths of police officers. In fact, The Washington Post reported last month that 2015 is on pace to see 35 felonious killings of police officers, which would be the second lowest number of murders committed against cops in decades.
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“Governor Christie needs to apologize for his statement that the Black Lives Matter movement is responsible for the killing of police officers in the United States. Such statements are irresponsible, offensive and flat-out wrong. Americans across the political spectrum have come to recognize that our nation's criminal justice system is broken, and the Black Lives Matter movement is part of a growing consensus that has rightfully focused on demanding greater transparency and accountability from our nation's police forces.
“Instead of disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement, Governor Christie should look at the track record of police departments in his own state. The Newark Police Department, the state’s largest municipal force, was cited last year by the United States Department of Justice for engaging in widespread civil rights violations.
“Telling the American people, in effect, to sit down and shut up is no solution to the serious issues too many communities face with law enforcement. The lives of police officers are paramount, but so, too, are the lives of people of color who have disproportionately faced the brunt of a broken criminal justice system.”
TRENTON – The mother of a Trenton teenager shot by police a month ago will be joined by the United Mercer Interfaith Organization and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey in calling for an investigation into the leaking of her son’s prior juvenile justice history.
Reports have appeared in the media detailing encounters by law enforcement with Radazz Hearns, 14, who survived seven gunshots to his legs and back. An Aug. 27 Trentonian article attributed information it published about the teenager's record to police reports released “under state sunshine laws.”
State law precludes the release of juvenile justice history, saying those records “shall be strictly safeguarded from public inspections.”
In letters (PDF) to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, New Jersey Acting Attorney General John Hoffman, and Mercer County Acting Prosecutor Angelo Onofri, Ms. Jackson and the groups asked for investigations into the leak. “Because the information provided to the Trentonian is exclusively under the control of law enforcement agencies, we request that you conduct an investigation into New Jersey law enforcement agencies to determine who provided the information to the press,” their letter to Fishman said.
Four other letters (PDF) were sent to the heads of the law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction – New Jersey State Police Superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes, Mercer County Sheriff John Kemler, Hopewell Township Police Chief Lance Maloney, and Trenton Police Director Ernest Parrey – asking for internal investigations of their departments, and demanding accountability for making protected records public.
“My son has been the target of a smear campaign using private information about encounters with authorities that could have only come from police in order to discredit him and justify the actions of the officers who shot him,” said Slimes Jackson, Radazz Hearns’ mother.
Hearns was unarmed when police approached him the night of Aug. 7, according to his lawyer, Samuel Anyan, Jr. But a release from the Office of the Attorney General said Hearns pointed a handgun at police before turning to flee as an explanation for why officers opened fire. A gun was recovered at the scene 12 hours after the incident. Police reports said an emergency vehicle parked on top of the weapon, which delayed recovery. Hearns, who was hospitalized for 10 days, has been charged with aggravated assault.
“The community has been kept in the dark all along about this investigation and the officers who were involved in the shooting. It is critical that the police are transparent and impartial in their actions – not secretly supplying reporters with prejudicial details of police interactions with juveniles to create a negative narrative,” said Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, United Mercer Interfaith Organization.
The officers involved in the shooting, reportedly from the New Jersey State Police and the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, have not been named.
Meanwhile, media reports citing sources who asked not to be identified have provided detailed accounts of Hearns’ juvenile record, including information about the school he attends.
“The media enjoy First Amendment protections in the reporting of information, but there is no doubt releasing the prior juvenile justice history of a teenage suspect by law enforcement is not just inappropriate but unlawful,” said Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent a letter to Hightstown Mayor Lawrence Quattrone (PDF) asking him to clarify Hightstown Police Department policy in light of remarks attributed to him in a Times of Trenton news story with the headline: Hightstown mayor: We are not a ‘sanctuary city.’
The story quoted the mayor saying, “If you get stopped for anything, [Hightstown police] will check your status … If you have wants or warrants against you, whether you’re a U.S. citizen, Latino, Greek, or Italian, your status will be checked and if there’s any problem, you will be turned over.”
A directive issued by the New Jersey Attorney General in 2007 instructs law enforcement officers to inquire about an individual’s immigration status only when arrested for indictable offenses or DUI offenses. A policy of routinely checking the immigration status of people stopped by police would be outside of that directive and raise serious civil rights concerns.
“Unnecessarily involving your officers in immigration enforcement undermines the public safety, rather than strengthening it,” the letter said.
The letter asks Quattrone to publicly clarify his statements; to make clear that Hightstown Police Department policies go no further in questioning individuals’ immigration status than is required by law; and to provide documentation of the department’s policies for dealing with immigrants or people thought to be immigrants.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today sent a letter (PDF) to state Acting Attorney General John Hoffman urging the release of further information about the shooting of 14-year-old Radazz Hearns, including the names of the state trooper and Mercer County sheriff’s officer who were involved in the shooting in Trenton on August 7.
Hearns, who was shot seven times but survived the shooting, has been charged with aggravated assault; unlawful possession of a handgun; and possession of a defaced firearm. The unnamed police officers contend Hearns had a handgun, according to the Attorney General’s office. Witnesses dispute that account and say Hearns was unarmed and ran away from the officers.
Law enforcement officials have been less than forthcoming about further details of the shooting.
“Nearly two weeks after the incident, your office has provided scant information about the shooting to Radazz's family and the broader Trenton community,” said the letter signed by ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer, Legal Director Edward Barocas, and Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin.
“In a matter such as this, the growing number of unanswered questions and absence of transparency can serve to exacerbate any distrust and division between community members and law enforcement. Absent a specific, particularized, and credible threat to the safety of the officers or their families, parents should not be left to wonder who shot their child.”
The letter sites recognized best practices for police departments, including guidelines for releasing the names of the officers involved in a shooting within hours of the shooting.
The ACLU-NJ will continue to be in touch with community members and monitor events as the case proceeds.
NEWARK – Governor Chris Christie today announced an initiative to equip the New Jersey State Police with body-worn cameras, and provided state funding to help municipal police departments purchase the cameras. “The use of body-worn cameras will bolster trust and better provide for the safety and protection of residents and officers alike," Christie said.
The announcement included the release of a 24-page directive (PDF) to law enforcement from Attorney General John Hoffman that spells out policies and practices for the use of body-worn cameras.
Following is a statement attributable to Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, about the use of body-worn cameras and the law enforcement directive:
“The Attorney General directive released today on police use of body cameras falls short of what’s needed to create police accountability in New Jersey.
“While it contains some important safeguards, it fails to address those very concerns that have triggered the public’s desire for body cameras in the first place. The public will not have a right to access the kind of footage—whether it's the chokehold used on Eric Garner or the arrest of Sandra Bland—that has sparked a conversation on police abuses.
“The Christie administration missed an important opportunity to create strong police accountability tools while also protecting the privacy and First Amendment rights of New Jerseyans.
“We have real concerns about several specific, key points: