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American Civil Liberties Union


Why I Help Escort Women to the Doors of Kentucky’s Last Abortion Clinic

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 15:30 -0400

A clinic escort discusses her work and how she's preparing for a week of large anti-abortion protests at her clinic. Beginning this weekend, the anti-abortion group Operation Save America will descend on Louisville, Kentucky, in an attempt to shut down the last abortion clinic in the state, EMW Women’s Surgical Center. The group has targeted EMW, whom the ACLU represents, before. In May, 10 of its members were arrested when they linked hands to block the entrance of the clinic and refused to move when asked to do so by law enforcement. Abortion protesters have the First Amendment right to protest outside a clinic on public property, but they do not have the right to interfere with anyone’s access to the clinic. OSA planned to stage a week of protests in front of EMW, starting tomorrow, with the goal of shutting the center down. But today, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against leaders of OSA and their associates, barring them from entering a buffer zone outside EMW's entrance.  Since the restraining order only applies to OSA leaders and associates, the protests will continue. There to assist patients of the center will be the Louisville Clinic Escorts, a group of volunteers who accompany women to the doors of the clinic, often in the face of insults and shouting. Their help is an invaluable part of the center’s fight to stay open and protect essential services for the women of Kentucky.  The ACLU caught up with Meg Stern, one of the Louisville Clinic Escorts, earlier this week to talk about her work. She is a Louisville native and works for the Kentucky Health Justice Network. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. When and why did you first get involved with Louisville Clinic Escorts? I started escorting in 1999 with a group of friends because I had learned that the protests were taking place and that the escorts were a thing. At the time, it was a very small group of folks, and I wanted to show up and do what I could because I didn’t think that that type of harassment was an okay thing for people to have to endure. How has escorting changed over the years? There have been a number of things that have affected what’s gone on on the sidewalk. There have been new regulations on abortion access in addition to the closing of the satellite clinics that EMW had open until this past January in Lexington, at which point the Louisville clinic became the only one in the state. In general, we’ve seen an increase in attendance at this clinic because it’s the only one. The protesters are aware that Gov. Matt Bevin is interested in trying to close this clinic as well. They see our clinic as low-hanging fruit in their mission to create a state with no clinics. Can you summarize what you tell volunteers about how to interact with both protesters and clients? Our website has a page called “points of unity.” They talk about things like focusing on de-escalation, not making assumptions. We always ask for consent from our clients every time. And that includes, “Do you want me to walk with you?” to, just based on body language, “If you want to grab my arm, you may.” We never make assumptions, and we focus a lot on consent from the clients and their companions. And do you typically get consent or do some people say no? Yeah, some people say no. Sometimes they change their minds pretty quickly. Escorts are stationed throughout the entire area surrounding the clinic, so it’s a pretty busy downtown road, especially on weekdays. And there’s no onsite parking for the clients, so they have to park either at a street meter or in a parking garage nearby. They have no option but to walk up the public sidewalk through a literal gauntlet, occasionally it looks more like an obstacle course, of people with signs. Often there are small children playing in the middle of the sidewalk. They create blockades. We have photos of all of the above, including protesters doing things like pressing signs into the faces of the escorts as the escort practices non-engagement.If a patie[...]

Remembering Norman Dorsen

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 12:00 -0400

Dorsen was a civil liberties hero who guided the ACLU through one of its most challenging times. On July 1, 2017, former ACLU President Norman Dorsen died due to complications from a stroke. Susan Herman, current president of the ACLU and a former student of Dorsen’s, remembers the impact the man had on her as well as the country’s understanding of what civil liberties and civil rights meant in the latter half of the 20th century. Norman Dorsen was my role model as constitutional law professor, as ACLU general counsel, and as ACLU president. I first met Professor Dorsen as a student in his constitutional law class at NYU Law School, where I observed some of his hallmark traits: an exquisite intellect; his keen pursuit of academic excellence (by himself and by his students); his steadfast dedication to civil liberties principles; his capacity to listen to and constructively engage people with different points of view; and his ability to inspire law students to want to take the baton. When I became a member of the ACLU’s National Board, I saw President Dorsen in action and admired his ability to wrangle a large and often rambunctious group of civil libertarians at board meetings. And after I was elected president of the ACLU, I got to know Norman, always interested in knowing what was happening at the ACLU these days, always eager to lend avuncular and sometimes uncannily perfect advice on both procedural and substantive issues.Early in my tenure, I co-wrote an article with Norman — about the ACLU as a federalist organization — and gained insight into his perfectionism as a writer. As we edited what we had written and received new proofs of each current version, I would check to see if our recent round of changes had been made accurately. Norman would reread the entire piece carefully and propose that we make additional refinements, like substituting a semi-colon for a comma here, or revising a phrase for greater clarity there. I lost count of how many rounds of corrections we went through, but Norman never lost his patience or his drive to have every one of his work products be the best it could be. Over time, I learned that what I saw of Norman was just the tip of the iceberg. I learned that Norman attributed his lifelong passion for civil liberties to his early experience working on the Army-McCarthy hearings, where he observed first-hand the dangerous consequences of demagoguery, unfair process, and repression of speech. As a prominent constitutional law scholar, Norman persuaded the Supreme Court to extend due process protections to juvenile proceedings (In re Gault, 1967) and to recognize equal protection rights for non-marital children (Levy v. Louisiana, 1968). After becoming ACLU general counsel, he successfully argued the first abortion case to reach the Supreme Court (In re Vuitch, 1971). Unlike many brilliant individuals, Norman was also a devoted institution builder. In 1961, he founded NYU’s Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties program, named for the ACLU’s esteemed co-founder and first general counsel. He directed and later co-directed that program for over 50 years, training and mentoring generations of civil liberties lawyers. Turning to the frontier of international human rights in his post-ACLU days, Norman led the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights and the U.S. Association of Constitutional Law. In 1995, he became founding director of the Hauser Global Law School program at NYU, one of the first programs of its kind. In 1972, Norman offered a challenge grant that resulted in the formation of the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT), an association of law professors dedicated to promoting justice, equality, and academic freedom. Norman not only founded SALT but became its first president and continued to help steer the organization for many years. Norman attributed his lifelong passion for civil liberties to his early experience working on the Army-McCarthy hearings. And of course, there was the ACLU, where Norman served as general counsel from 1969-[...]

North Carolina’s Rewrite of HB2 Is Nothing More Than a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 11:30 -0400

HB 142 still enshrines discrimination against trans people into state law. When North Carolina lawmakers in March passed a fake "repeal" of House Bill 2, the state’s sweeping anti-LGBT law, we promised we would continue our fight for the rights and dignity of all LGBT people in our state.Today we delivered on that promise. Along with our partners at Lambda Legal, the ACLU and ACLU of North Carolina today announced a new court challenge to House Bill 142, a law that — like its predecessor, the infamous HB2 — was designed to treat LGBT people as second-class citizens, particularly singling out transgender people for discrimination. In March 2016, we filed a federal lawsuit that challenged HB2 on behalf of LGBT North Carolinians. Later that year, a federal court ruled in our case that HB2 likely violated federal nondiscrimination law. HB2 was so discriminatory that it sparked national outrage and threats from major businesses and sports organizations to boycott North Carolina. Because HB2 was so unpopular, discriminatory, and toxic to our state, legislators were forced to rewrite the law. But the rewrite, HB 142, was nothing more than an effort to sidestep criticism, avoid political retaliation, and get back in the good graces of big business and sports organizations so the money would flow again.Because make no mistake about it: HB 142 still discriminates against LGBT people, in defiance of the clear demands of North Carolinians, businesses, and the nation at large. HB142 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing crafted to keep discrimination intact while sporting a different look. HB2 blocked cities and counties from being able to pass policies that protected LGBT people from being discriminated against at their job or when they enter businesses open to the public, like hotels or restaurants. Under HB 142, they can’t pass those protections until December 2020 — and local protections for transgender people have been effectively banned. Although numerous bills were proposed that would have cleanly repealed HB2 and returned North Carolina to the pre-HB2 landscape, none passed either chamber. Instead, legislators passed a bill that perpetuated anti-LGBT discrimination. Many of the lawmakers who voted for HB 142 have said its passage ensured that trans people can be criminally prosecuted for using restrooms in public buildings that match their gender identity. For example, on the day that he voted for HB 142, Rep. Brenden Jones said that it was not a repeal of HB2. “What this essentially means,” he said, “is that the restroom provision of HB2 remains.” For many legislators, this discrimination was not a bug, but a feature. Because of the lack of clarity in HB 142 and statements like these from elected officials, transgender individuals have been deterred from using restrooms and other single-sex multiple-user facilities that match their gender identity. The truth is the new language of HB 142 (pictured below) has created uncertainty about whether transgender people are protected or are subject to criminal or other penalties if they use restrooms and other facilities in public spaces. One of the North Carolinians we are representing in our lawsuit is Maddy Goss. She is a transgender woman who lives in Raleigh and often uses public restrooms when traveling on state highways to visit her family in western North Carolina or visiting the General Assembly to advocate for social justice causes. Under HB 142, Maddy worries about her safety in such situations because HB 142 has created uncertainty about her right to access women’s restrooms in public buildings. Will she be arrested? Or fined? Or both? The answer is we don’t know. But legislators like Rep. Jones believe Maddy should face legal consequences if she uses the restroom that matches her gender identity. In this way, North Carolina’s law encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against transgender North Carolinians like Maddy, making them even more vulnerable to harassment, discrimination, and vi[...]

The First Amendment Protects the Right to Boycott Israel

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 14:30 -0400

Opinions on the Mideast conflict aside, the right to boycott is one of the brightest stars in our constitutional firmament. Earlier this week, the ACLU sent a letter to members of Congress opposing the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. The bill would amend existing law to prohibit people in the United States from supporting boycotts targeting Israel — making it a felony to choose not to engage in commerce with companies doing business in Israel and its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Violations would be punishable by a civil penalty that could reach $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison. The bill is aimed at advocates of boycotts targeting Israel, most notably the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement — a global campaign that seeks to apply economic and political pressure on Israel to comply with international law. Specifically, the bill sponsors intend the act as a response to the U.N. Human Rights Council’s 2016 resolution calling on companies to respect human rights, including in occupied Palestinian territories.No matter what you think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one thing is clear: The First Amendment protects the right to engage in political boycotts. In fact, the right to boycott is one of the brightest stars in our constitutional firmament. The American Revolution was founded on boycotts against British goods to protest excessive taxes. John Jay led a boycott against New York merchants who engaged in the slave trade. And the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956 was a major turning point in the struggle for civil rights in the Jim Crow South. In the 1970s and 1980s, colleges and universities led a widespread campaign to boycott and divest from South Africa, in protest of apartheid. In 2015, football players at the University of Missouri went on strike until the school addressed acute racial tensions on campus. And North Carolina’s law prohibiting transgender people from accessing restrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identities sparked massive boycotts by businesses and individuals. Boycotts are a form of collective action that allows ordinary people to make their voices heard. For precisely this reason, the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment protects the right to boycott. The court’s landmark decision in NAACP v Claiborne Hardware Co. affirmed the constitutional right of NAACP activists to hold a mass economic boycott of white-owned businesses in Port Gibson, Mississippi, to protest the community’s persistent racial inequality and segregation. In ringing language, the court held that the boycotters’ exercise of their rights to “speech, assembly, and petition . . . to change a social order that had consistently treated them as second-class citizens” rested “on the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.” No matter what you think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one thing is clear: The First Amendment protects the right to engage in political boycotts. This is a proud constitutional legacy. Today, though, the right to boycott is under assault. Over the past several years, federal, state, and local legislators have introduced wave after wave of legislation seeking to stamp out boycotts and divestment campaigns aimed at Israel. One such law, passed earlier this year by Nassau County in New York, prohibits the county from doing business with people who support the BDS movement. As a result, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame could be banned from playing at the Nassau Coliseum in New York. Similar laws have been passed in Arizona and Kansas.None of them comport with the First Amendment. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act introduced in Congress goes a step further, threatening severe civil and criminal punishment against individuals who refrain from doing business with Israel because of their political opposition to its government’s actions. The bill amends two existing laws, the Export Admini[...]

A Federal Appeals Court Just Shot Down Government Prayer on Steroids in North Carolina

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 17:30 -0400

The Fourth Circuit recognized that there are still limitations on invocations by governmental legislative bodies. In Rowan County, North Carolina, the county board of commissioners was intent on taking government prayer to a whole new level. Every board meeting opened with a prayer. But it wasn’t just government prayer. It was government prayer on steroids.The prayers were delivered by commissioners themselves. No one else was allowed to give the prayer. Over the years, the prayers referred to only one faith — Christianity — and were proselytizing. Multiple prayers, for example, described Christianity as “the one and only way to salvation.” In others, commissioners apologized for the community’s sins and failure to follow Jesus Christ, suggested that Christianity is a superior faith, and expressed a desire for meeting attendees to accept Christ.Before every prayer began, a commissioner instructed audience members to stand and directed those assembled to join in the prayer. When some residents objected to the prayers, several commissioners loudly recommitted to the practice. One even announced he would go to jail before ending the prayers while another declared that he was being persecuted. In 2013, the ACLU and ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging the practice on behalf of three Rowan County residents. The district court agreed that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and enjoined them. Earlier this year, the case was heard by the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Last week, the court affirmed the lower court’s injunction and held that that the county’s prayers were, indeed, unconstitutional. The overwhelming majority of judges on the Fourth Circuit — 10 out of 15 — sided with our clients. As the court of appeals explained, the “great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation.” The ruling is an important development in the law governing the separation of church and state. It recognizes that there are still limitations on invocations, often called “legislative prayer,” delivered at meetings of legislatures, town and county councils, and other legislative bodies, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling three years ago in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In Town of Greece, the Supreme Court upheld a town council’s practice of opening meetings with prayer led by a rotating cast of local clergy and others. Though the prayers there did invoke specific faiths — most often Christianity — the court recognized that the invocation opportunity was open to people of all faiths and had included non-Christian prayer-givers. However, the Supreme Court made clear in its Town of Greece decision that it was not creating an “anything goes” rule for legislative prayers. The Fourth Circuit gave voice to those limitations last week, finding that Rowan County breached the constitutionally permissible tradition of legislative prayer because it “linked itself persistently and relentlessly to a single faith” and “elevated one religion above all others.” This practice is a far cry from the invocations upheld in Town of Greece. First, “[i]nstead of embracing religious pluralism and the possibility of a correspondingly diverse invocation practice, Rowan County’s commissioners created a ‘closed-universe’ of prayer-givers dependent solely on election outcomes.” Second, “[h]aving structured the prayer opportunity so that Board members alone could give voice to their religious convictions, the commissioners unceasingly and exclusively invoked Christianity.” And these prayers routinely preached the Gospel to attendees, “proclaiming the spiritual and moral supremacy of Christianity, characterizing the political community as a Christian one, and urging adherents of other religions to embrace Christianity as the sole path to salvation.” Third, commission[...]

How People Power Activists Are Driving Change

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 11:45 -0400

In its four short months of existence, People Power has had success after success nationwide. Four months ago, activists and volunteers all over the country came together to launch the People Power movement, seeking to bring meaningful policy change to their local communities and the nation.  Melissa Bruzzano of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was one of those volunteers, and she immediately joined People Power’s “Freedom Cities” campaign to help prevent the Trump administration’s immigration agents from tearing families apart.  Melissa and the 1,200 People Power activists in the Ann Arbor area worked to persuade the City Council to adopt the ACLU “9 Model Rules” word-for-word.  These rules, which govern the actions of local police, are designed to protect immigrant communities from discrimination, surveillance, and unjust deportations.  Melissa’s path to activism began at the Women’s March in January. She had “never been politically active,” she says. “My life was pretty good, and so I just sat on the proverbial couch watching it all go by.”   That changed at the march. “A man and a friend hoisted me up a tree about 12 feet off the ground so I could get a look at the crowd,” Melissa said. “I didn’t know what to do once I got up there.  Everyone was watching me so I started chanting, ‘This is what democracy looks like’ and ‘Hell no, we won’t go.’  When I got down, a lady in a hijab hugged me and said something like ‘Are you with the ACLU?’ . . . . And here I am.” Washtenaw County is one of many places where change has taken root. A few months later, Melissa and her fellow activists made change happen in Ann Arbor, and they didn’t stop at the city level.  They also met with and attended hearings of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, convincing the board to not only adopt similarly protective rules, but also to provide public funding for legal defense and other assistance for immigrants facing deportation. Washtenaw County is one of many places where change took root. In April, with a strong push from People Power volunteers, Albany, California, also adopted the “9 Model Rules” to the letter.  Volunteers in communities  like Silver City, New Mexico; Middlesex County, New Jersey; Rockville, Maryland; Berwyn, Illinois; New Castle County, Delaware; and Culver City, California; have secured victories as well, pushing local leaders to put in place rules equivalent in substance to the ACLU’s model rules.    So far, People Power volunteers have had nearly 1,000 meetings with local law enforcement officials — in addition to meetings with mayors, city council members, and county commissioners — to press for the adoption of immigrant-friendly, constitutionally sound policies.   Volunteers have also made their voices heard on other immigration-related issues.  Wendy Snyder, an activist in Pinellas County, Florida, has continued to protest Donald Trump’s Muslim ban because, she says, it  “is hurting the people who need to emigrate the most.  These are people who are trying to flee their war-torn country.” And Robert Coffey, from Mount Vernon, Washington, participated in May Day marches because immigrants “have earned the right for respect and civil treatment in our community.”  Other volunteers have worked with ACLU state affiliates to support bills that would expand immigrant protections statewide — like SB 54 in California and the Safe Communities Act in Massachusetts. They’ve helped to kill anti-immigrant bills like LD 366 in Maine, and they are working to defeat SB 4 – the “show me your papers” bill in Texas.   Beyond leading the charge on immigration, People Power activists have fought relentlessly to stop health care bills that would eliminate coverage for millions of Americans, attending more than 150 events nationwide; worked to oppose the roll back of “net neutrality” protections by rall[...]

The Drone Program in Pakistan Is One of the Government’s Worst-Kept Secrets

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 16:45 -0400

The government seems to claim in court that the drone program in Pakistan is an official "secret." That's plain absurd. If it’s a secret, it’s surely one of the worst kept secrets in the world. Although the U.S. government has tried for more than a decade to shroud its use of drones to conduct targeted killings abroad in official secrecy, its latest effort is extraordinary. In August 2016, the government blacked out a court ruling against government secrecy (yes, really), hiding from the public its reasons for why the ruling should remain secret. Then, it also hid its reasons for appealing that ruling to a higher court. In our latest attempt to shed light on this controversial lethal program through Freedom of Information Act litigation, we explained to the appeals court why we think the government’s appeal is about a fact that everyone knows to be true: The United States has a targeted killing program in Pakistan. But first, marvel with us at what a public court filing from the government has to say: Here’s what the world knows: Since the inception of the U.S. targeted killing program over a decade ago, the use of lethal drones outside of war zones has dramatically expanded. The United States has conducted drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya — but its longest and most relentless effort has taken place in Pakistan. The United States has carried out over 400 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing thousands of people, including hundreds of civilians, according to independent research and reporting. Human rights organizations and media have regularly reported on drone strikes there. Government officials, too, have confirmed the use of U.S. drones in Pakistan. In just one example, in 2015, Leon Panetta, the former CIA director, acknowledged that he personally approved the targeted killing by drone of an alleged al-Qaeda operative in the country. Remarkably, though, the government still claims that the existence of a drone program in Pakistan is a secret. And while overbroad and official secrecy is too-often par for the course when it comes to the government’s approach to national security matters, its approach to this particular “secret” is exceptional. The government claims that neither it nor the courts can even talk about the topic publicly — even in the context of examining whether the government’s claimed secrecy is justified at all. Last year, we provided evidence to a district court that government officials had “officially acknowledged” a long list of information concerning its targeted killing program. Under FOIA, courts have held that information is “officially acknowledged” only when the government has made public, on-the-record statements that specifically confirm it. Once the government has “officially acknowledged” information, it can no longer rely on secrecy claims to withhold it from the public. As we’ve explained before, this rule ensures that the government cannot make self-serving claims about the legality and wisdom of its actions but then deny fuller information that allows the public to assess the accuracy of the government’s claims. One of the items on our list of “official acknowledgments” was evidence that the United States conducts targeted killings in Pakistan using drones. This evidence included a statement straight from former Secretary of State John Kerry, made in an August 2013 interview on Pakistani television. When Secretary Kerry was asked by the Pakistani journalist if he envisaged a timeline for ending U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Secretary Kerry responded that he did and that “the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.” That’s a straightforward acknowledgment, and one that made headlines around the world. Here’s where things get weird. In the district court’s opinion, which the government reviewed b[...]

Lawmakers in Texas Are Returning to the Capitol for More Anti-Trans Discrimination

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 15:00 -0400

The lives of transgender people are at stake as Texas convenes their special legislative session. In Texas, transgender young people and their families have become accustomed to sustained attacks on their basic humanity. Throughout the last legislative session, which concluded in May with most of the anti-trans bills failing to pass, trans Texans and their loved ones traveled to the capitol in Austin from across the state to plea for decency, justice, and the basic opportunity to participate in public life. When SB6, the sweeping anti-trans bill modeled after North Carolina’s infamous HB2, was heard before a Senate committee in March, hundreds of bill opponents flocked to the capitol to speak out against the measure, which did nothing more than demonize transgender Texans. The hearing lasted through the night and despite the heartfelt testimony from trans people and their families, the measure passed out of the committee 8-1 and went on to clear the Senate floor. The bill then died in the House despite the relentless efforts of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to get an anti-trans bill heard on the House floor. Now Texas lawmakers will return to Austin on Tuesday, July 18, to begin a 30-day special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott to, among other things, attempt to pass the anti-transgender legislation that failed to pass during the regular session. Proponents of these anti-trans measures, like SB6 champion Sen. Lois Kolkhorst claim that they are designed to “find the balance of privacy, decency, respect, and dignity, to protect women, children, and all people.” But they do nothing to serve privacy and safety. They do not protect anyone’s dignity. Rather they compromise the dignity of transgender people, gender non-conforming people, and the people who care for and love us. As hundreds of domestic violence and sexual assault organizations explained in a public statement opposing these anti-trans measures last year, “discriminating against transgender people does nothing to decrease the risk of sexual assault.” The statement went on to “oppose any law that would jeopardize the safety of transgender people by forcing them into restrooms that do not align with the gender they live every day.” The organizations also made it clear that as advocates committed to violence prevention, they could not “stand by while the needs of survivors, both those who are transgender and those who are not, are obscured in order to push a political agenda that does nothing to serve and protect victims and potential victims.” And while lawmakers continue to push this political agenda, transgender youth continue to be targeted, transgender women of color continue to be killed, and our communities continue to be decimated by the consequences of legitimizing a debate over our humanity. In a viral video from Texas, Ken Ballard spoke about his support for his son, who is transgender. “Was I going to be his bully?” he asks. “Was I going to try to put him back in a box that fit the rules of my world at the time?” After his son attempted suicide, Ballard understood that he had a choice between loving and supporting a joyful and happy son or grieving a dead daughter. He chose to love his son. He chose to celebrate his beautiful son. After all, he reflected, “I didn’t have this kid to fulfill my dreams. I had this kid to help him realize his.” And the lives and dreams of our children are at stake. Transgender young people experience epidemically high rates of suicidality, and over 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide at some point in our lives. This is life or death. In a recent New Yorker article, Texas’s Republican House Speaker Joe Straus said of these sustained attacks on transgender people: “I’m disgusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.[...]

Reform Is Finally Coming to Illinois’s Unjust Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 17:00 -0400

The Illinois Legislature has approved reform legislation that will reduce abuses associated with civil asset forfeiture. In Illinois, you’ll often hear police officials say that the only way to fight back against the Scarfaces of the world is to make sure crime doesn’t pay. The primary tool police use to do that is through civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow law enforcement to confiscate people’s private property based on the mere suspicion that the property was involved in criminal activity. The property can be taken by police regardless of whether the property owner is convicted of a crime or, get this, even charged with a crime for that matter. This powerful tool was supposed to be reserved for disrupting large-scale criminal syndicates, but spending just a few hours in courtroom 1707 of the Richard Daley building in downtown Chicago reveals how civil asset forfeiture laws have mutated into something sinister. Drug cartels and other large criminal organizations are seldom affected by these laws. Instead, the laws burden low-income people and communities of color with the weight of an unfair and misdirected criminal justice system that violates their due process rights. Each day, room 1707 fills with people who have had their property seized by the police. They are there because they want it back. Absurdly, these forfeiture actions were filed not against them personally but against the property itself. But to reclaim the property, the owners bear the burden of proving their innocence, turning the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head. The majority of the people in the courtroom are Black or Latino. And very few are represented by an attorney because, unlike in the criminal justice system, an attorney isn’t provided in civil court. Contrary to the preferred narrative of law enforcement, these cases rarely involve trunks full of plastic-wrapped $100 bills, Maseratis, yachts, or other luxury items associated with major criminal enterprises. Instead the property at issue is often just a few hundred dollars cash or a rickety old car. The alleged crimes for which property is seized usually involve small amounts of marijuana or controlled substances. Only a minority of cases involve large quantities of drugs indicative of trafficking. A new survey of public records over the past five years confirms that property seizures in Cook County are concentrated in the poorest parts of Chicago. The data — collated by Lucy Parsons Labs, a police accountability nonprofit — includes both the locations of seizures and a description of the property seized. The 23,000-plus seizures reported from 2012 through 2017 were plotted on a map published in Reason magazine, showing that a disproportionate number of seizures occur in the city’s lowest-income communities, the majority Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides. Reason’s analysis of the data shows the average value of property seized was relatively low. Approximately 11,000 seizures over five years involved amounts of currency less than $1,000, and nearly 1,500 involved amounts under $100. Not surprisingly, the lower the property’s value, the more likely it was to have been seized from a person in a community of color. The dirty little secret of civil asset forfeiture is that police often get to keep a sizable amount of the cash and property they seize. Since property owners’ due process rights are essentially null and void, police know that what they seize they’ll likely keep. Last November, the ACLU and the Illinois Policy Institute released a report on civil asset forfeiture. We found that between 2005 and 2015 Illinois law enforcement took in more than $319 million through forfeiture. The results of these studies come at an opportune time for Chicago and the state of Illinois. A strong reform bill passed in th[...]

What This American Family Went Through at the Border Was Clearly Unconstitutional

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 16:30 -0400

The harrowing border experience of an American family represents much of what’s wrong with our approach to border security. Increasing border detentions and a ballooning American watchlisting system are two major drivers of government abuse. A lawsuit the ACLU filed last week challenges both. We represent Abdisalam Wilwal, Sagal Abdigani, and their four young children — all U.S. citizens whose experience at the border represents much of what’s wrong with the government’s approach to border security. The family lives in the Minneapolis area and was returning from a trip to visit relatives in Saskatchewan, Canada, on March 30, 2015. After they pulled their minivan up to the border checkpoint at Portal, North Dakota, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers appeared with their guns drawn and pointed at the van, yelling at Abdisalam to come out with his hands in the air. They handcuffed him in front of his family as his children screamed and cried from fear. The officers held Abdisalam for almost 11 hours, which he spent handcuffed alone in a room in the border station. At one point during the detention, having been denied food or water for hours, he passed out and required medical attention. The officers detained Sagal and the four children elsewhere in the border station. They denied her requests to use the phone or have someone pick up the children, saying, “You’re all the same. You’re all detainees, including the children.” At one point hours into the detention, Sagal — extremely anxious about her family’s safety — used her son’s phone to call 911 and report what was happening. A CBP officer grabbed the phone and spoke to the dispatcher. Help never arrived. Two officers then took Sagal’s son, who was 14 years old at the time, into a separate room and patted him down. They told him to remove his clothes for a strip search, which he refused to do. About nine hours into the detention, two Homeland Security Investigations agents arrived at the border station. They questioned Abdisalam for about 45 minutes about his religious practices, travel, family, and job. They then told him he was free to go. The whole family left immediately. Read more about the family’s harrowing experience Abdisalam later learned that he and his family were detained because he is on the government’s terrorism watchlist. He doesn’t know why he’s been watchlisted, and the government won’t tell him. This much is clear, though: The officers’ treatment of the family violated the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and what happened to this family was anything but reasonable. The fact that it happened at the border doesn’t matter. We frequently hear that CBP officers tell travelers, including U.S. citizens, that they don’t have rights at the border. That’s flat wrong. CBP officers do have the authority to conduct what are called “routine searches” — they can stop people at border crossings and search their belongings without a warrant or suspicion that they’re engaged in wrongdoing. But officers can’t use unreasonable force, and a lawful border stop can become an unlawful seizure or arrest if the officers have no valid reason to prolong the stop. The CBP officers who detained Sagal and the kids had no basis to believe that they were either inadmissible to the United States or carrying contraband, but the officers nonetheless held them captive for nearly 11 hours. That’s an unlawful seizure. And what the officers did to Abdisalam amounted to an arrest without a warrant or probable cause: They displayed and used force to handcuff him, hold him alone and against his will, and interrogate him without advising him of his right to remain silent or contact an attorney. The fact that Abdisalam was on a gover[...]