News Author: Morgan Miller

ACLU-MS to Law Enforcement: Protect Citizens' Right to Record Actions of Public Officials

September 29, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Jennifer Riley-Collins, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; jriley-collins@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – Highlighting recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and following the model set by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in an unprecedented legal statement on citizens’ rights to record police actions, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi is contacting local law enforcement agencies throughout Mississippi, urging them to establish clear policies and training to ensure that officers conform to the Constitution they are sworn to protect. The ACLU of Mississippi hopes that by sharing information with Mississippi law enforcement officials about best practices the organization can assist police in heading off problems and protecting the rights of citizens as well as public safety.

“Taking photographs and videos of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is your constitutional right. That includes police and other government officials carrying out their duties,” said ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director, Charles Irvin. “Unfortunately, law enforcement officers often order people to stop taking photographs or video in public places, and sometimes harass, detain or even arrest people who use their cameras or cell phone recording devices in public. We urge Mississippi’s law enforcement agencies to join with us and to conduct embrace policies in line with DOJ guidance which protect this right.”

Given the conflicts over recording that continue to arise despite the enormous attention this issue is receiving across the country, the ACLU of Mississippi urges that now is the time for Mississippi police departments to review and modify their internal policies and training programs to ensure protection of the rights of citizen journalists.

The Department of Justice specifically recommends that police policies do the following:

  • Affirmatively set forth the First Amendment right to record police activity;
  • Describe the range of prohibited police responses to individuals observing or recording the police;
  • Clearly describe when an individual’s actions amount to interference with police duties;
  • Provide clear guidance on the necessity of supervisory review of any proposed action to be taken by officers against an individual who is recording police;
  • Describe the narrow circumstances under which it is permissible for officers to seize recordings and recording devices; and
  • Indicate that no higher burden be placed on individuals exercising their right to record police activity than that placed on members of the press.


Read the letter
to law enforcement agencies.

Learn more about the right to record.

ACLU Files Brief in Same-Sex Divorce Case

September 25, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; mmiller@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi (ACLU-MS) filed a “friend of the court” brief with the Mississippi Supreme Court in Chatham v. State of Mississippi, a case that would allow a same-sex couple to be legally divorced. The organizations assert that denying a couple the right to a divorce infringes upon their constitutional right to due process and equal protection.

“Mississippi’s failure to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples performed in other jurisdictions is forcing people to stay in harmful relationships,” said Charles Irvin, Legal Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “That’s why we filed today and why the ACLU is fighting to see the day when all Americans’ marriages are recognized in all 50 states.”

Lauren Czekala-Chatham was legally and lawfully married to Dana Ann Melancon in 2008 in California and the women separated in 2010. In 2013, a DeSoto County Chancery judge ruled that Mississippi’s Constitution and other provisions prohibit granting a divorce. After the ruling, Ms. Chatham filed for an appeal challenging the constitutionality of the state’s failure to recognize legally valid marriages performed in other states and exclude same-sex couples from any legal status that provides rights, benefits, or duties that are similar to heterosexual couples’ marriages. The Mississippi Supreme Court has taken up her case.

“The unfair patchwork of state marriage laws presents unique legal challenges across the country as some states recognize marriages from other jurisdictions and some don’t,” said Joshua Block, Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. “This case again shows the real and concrete harm caused by treating same-sex couples differently state by state and why we are supporting the right of all Mississippians to make important decisions about their relationships.”

In addition to the nineteen states that have legalized same-sex marriage, a number of states with a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage similar to Mississippi’s have granted divorce for same-sex couples. There is pending litigation by ACLU affiliates and other organizations in thirty four states. 


The brief is available here.

Learn more about the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project.

ACLU Sues Scott County on Behalf of Mississippians Jailed Indefinitely Without Lawyer or Indictment

September 24, 2014

For Immediate Release

CONTACT: Alexandra Ringe, media@aclu.org, 212-549-2666

NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a class action suit late yesterday against the Scott County (Mississippi) sheriff, district attorney, and judges after learning that the Scott County Detention Center has held people for as long as a year without appointing counsel and without indicting them. The county’s practices violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments’ rights to counsel, to a speedy trial, and to a fair bail hearing.

“This is indefinite detention, pure and simple. Scott County jail routinely holds people without giving them a lawyer and without formally charging them for months, with no end in sight. For those waiting for indictment, the county has created its own Constitution-free zone,” said Brandon Buskey, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “These prisoners’ cases are frozen, their lives outside the jail are disintegrating, and they haven’t even been charged with a crime. The county has tossed these people into a legal black hole.”

One plaintiff in the ACLU’s suit, Joshua Bassett, has been in the Scott County Detention Center since January 16 of this year; he has been denied an attorney and a grand jury hearing. Another, Octavious Burks, has been in the jail since November 18, 2013. Neither Mr. Bassett nor Mr. Burks could afford their bail. Mr. Burks has been through this ordeal twice before. Since 2009, he has been jailed in Scott County on three separate charges without indictment or counsel.

The ACLU has evidence that many others have been trapped in the Scott County Detention Center for months at a time because they couldn’t pay bail and, like Mr. Bassett and Mr. Burks, were denied counsel and a grand jury hearing.

“We’re seeking to make Scott County’s justice system function for all its residents,” said Buskey. “The county must set reasonable limits on the amount of time someone can remain in jail without a lawyer and without charges. But Scott County, while extreme, isn’t alone. In too many places across the United States, poor people languish in jail for weeks and months, crowding the system because they can’t make bail and are waiting for an indictment or a public defender. Reform can’t come soon enough.”
 

The complaint in Burks et al. v. Scott County et al. is available here:
https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/burks-et-al-v-scott-county-mississippi

More information about the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project is available here:
https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform

Mothers and Children Fleeing Violence Need a Fair Chance

August 22, 2014

By Mitra Ebadolahi, Border Litigation Staff Attorney, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties at 1:05pm

Imagine this: Several months ago, a young mother realized that if she didn't leave home, she would be raped, murdered, or both. She had two young children – an infant and a toddler – and few resources. She knew she couldn't count on the police to protect her. With no other choice, she decided to risk a voyage of more than 2,000 miles north, much of the trip on foot through difficult and dangerous terrain, in the hope that she would find refuge from her persecutors.

Instead, when she reached El Paso, Texas, she and her children were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol, who promptly sent the family to a makeshift detention facility in remote Artesia, New Mexico. There, this mother and her children joined hundreds of other women and children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, many fleeing gang violence, brutal sexual abuse, and a life of perpetual fear and insecurity.

Artesia, it turns out, is the detention equivalent of a black hole. It is a three- or four-hour drive from the closest major metropolitan areas where immigration attorneys might be found.

Equally disturbing are reports that these families – some of the most vulnerable women and children in the world – have been denied information about their fundamental rights under U.S. law, in particular their right to consult a lawyer or to seek asylum or other relief from deportation on account of their real fears of persecution if they are returned to their home countries.

Immigration officers staffing Artesia routinely interfere with the ability of these families to contact a lawyer. Phone calls – even calls to lawyers – are permitted only once per day and are routinely cut off by immigration officers after just three or five minutes. Many lawyers have been denied access to clients or told by the authorities that they are not allowed to speak up in hearings to defend their clients' rights. When one detained mother attempted to find an attorney by asking an official at Artesia if she could get one, he told her that an attorney was not necessary. Another detained mother was told by an ICE officer that an attorney would only facilitate her deportation.

The procedures these mothers have received to evaluate their potential asylum claims have been fundamentally flawed. Because many mothers have been required to bring their children to their asylum interviews, they have been forced to choose between recounting gruesome acts of violence in front of their children, or staying silent and forgoing the chance to explain the basis for their fear of returning home.

As a result of these and other egregious rights violations, the percentage of families detained in Artesia who are given the chance to apply for asylum is far below the national average – even though these families' stories are some of the worst possibly imaginable.

The Obama administration – which has repeatedly stated it intends to send these families back – is violating federal immigration law, the constitutional right to due process, and our obligations under international law to protect vulnerable refugees.

Today, a broad coalition of immigrants' rights organizations and immigration practitioners filed suit to challenge what is happening at Artesia. We seek to ensure that each individual has a real chance to apply for asylum or other forms of immigration relief and to establish once and for all that the government cannot rush deportations at the expense of our Constitution, our obligations under international law, and our nation's finest values.

The case is M.S.P.C. v. Johnson Counsel include ACLU, ACLU of New Mexico, ACLU Border Litigation Project, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, ACLU of the Nation's Capital, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, the American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Law Center, Van Der Hout, Brigagliano, & Nightingale, LLP, and Jenner & Block LLP.

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Advocacy Groups Issue Joint Statement on Revisions to TANF Procedures

August 19, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408, mmiller@aclu-ms.org
Sid Scott, Mississippi Center for Justice, 769-230-2841, sscott@mscenterforjustice.org

JACKSON, Miss. — The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice issued the following joint statement in light of the Mississippi Department of Human Services release of revisions to the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) rules:

“We applaud DHS for adopting a provision that protects TANF payments for children. This action comes after a July 22 public hearing that we called for and that featured heartfelt testimony calling for the change to protect payments for children, among other things. While we are generally very pleased with the new regulations, we continue to express concern about the viability of the chosen screening instrument, and reassert that TANF recipients should not be required to pay for the treatment process.”

Ferguson is Everytown, U.S.A.

August 18, 2014

By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program at 5:07pm

The tragic killing of college-bound teenager Michael Brown has raised questions about the frequency with which police kill unarmed black men in America. The answer, unfortunately, is far too often.

Just three months ago, on a warm April afternoon, a white police officer shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man, in downtown Milwaukee's Red Arrow Park. According to the Milwaukee police chief, the officer was "defending himself in a violent situation." But the eyewitness report of a Starbucks barista paints a very different picture.

According to the barista, Hamilton had been sleeping on the concrete sidewalk next to Starbucks when two police officers approached him, asked him questions, and left after determining that he was doing nothing wrong. But an hour or so later, she heard yelling. Looking out the Starbucks window, she saw a different white police officer standing up against Hamilton, "who was holding the officer's own baton in a defense posture." The officer "lunged" at Hamilton in an attempt to get the baton, but failed. The barista watched in horror as the officer stood 10 feet away from Hamilton, pulled out a gun, and shot Hamilton 10 times in quick succession without issuing any verbal warnings. The barista reports that she never saw Hamilton hit the officer with the baton.

The tragic killing of Hamilton bears a striking – and deeply troubling – resemblance to the killing of Michael Brown, who was shot by an officer six times, including twice in the head, after being stopped for walking down the middle of a street. Including Hamilton and Brown, at least six black men were shot and killed by police since April in circumstances that suggest the unjustified use of excessive force and possible racial profiling.

In July, Eric Garner was killed in New York by officers who placed him in a chokehold – a banned tactic – and slammed his head into a sidewalk during an attempt to arrest him for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes.

In early August, police in Beavercreek, Ohio, fatally shot John Crawford III in a Walmart, where Crawford had been holding a BB gun that he had picked up on a store shelf.

Just days after the killing of Brown, Ezell Ford was killed by police on a Los Angeles sidewalk during an investigative stop. While police contend that officers opened fire after a "struggle," Ford's mother reports that he was lying on the ground complying with the officers' order when he was shot three times in the back.

And the very next day, pressman Dante Parker was killed in Victorville, California, after being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by police attempting to arrest him as a suspect in a nearby robbery. Apparently, police suspected him because he was riding a bicycle, and the robbery suspect was reported to have fled on a bike.

The stories of these six people make one thing painfully clear: The killing of black men in incidents that begin as investigatory police stops are anything but unusual in America. In this sense, Ferguson is Everytown, U.S.A.

There is a reason for this. More than 240 years of slavery and 90 years of legal segregation in this country have created a legacy of racialized policing. Killings and beatings lie at one end of a spectrum in which black people ­– and young black men in particular – are routinely stigmatized, humiliated, and harassed as targets for police stops, frisks, and searches, even when they are doing nothing wrong.

The numbers show the reality.

Studies of Rhode Island traffic stops and New York pedestrian stops confirm that police stop blacks at higher rates than whites. Even more troubling is that the New York study determined that a neighborhood's racial composition was the main factor for determining NYPD stop rates, above and beyond the "role of crime, social conditions, or the allocation of police resources." In other words, New York cops targeted blacks because of their race – not because they happened to live in a dangerous place or in an area flooded by police.

Data from Ferguson mirrors these racial disparities. Last year, blacks not only accounted for 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests by Ferguson police, the state attorney general's office calculated that blacks were overrepresented in these encounters in light of their population figures. Even more damning is the fact that although police were twice as likely to search blacks than whites after initiating a stop, whites were far more likely to be found with contraband.

It is not a leap to conclude that the same biases that cause those racial disparities also make it more likely that black men will die during the course of police arrests. According to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, although black men made up only 27.8 percent of all persons arrested from 2003-2009, they made up 31.8 percent of all persons who died in the course of arrest, and the majority of these deaths were homicides.

Why does racialized policing persist despite the end of slavery and Jim Crow? While explicit racial bias may be less prominent today (albeit anything but eliminated), implicit racial biases plague all of us, including those charged with keeping our streets safe. A large body of compelling research has demonstrated how these unconscious, automatically activated, and pervasive mental processes translate into action with devastating consequences for black people.

In particular, researchers have well-documented shooter bias. One video game study simulated the nearly instantaneous decisions made by police officers to shoot armed individuals and to refrain from shooting the unarmed. The study revealed that participants were more likely to shoot black people than white people in error.

Both explicit and implicit biases lead far too often to the killing of black men in police-civilian encounters. And they undergird the daily indignity and humiliation experienced by blacks who are stopped, questioned, and searched by police when they have done nothing wrong.

Police are sworn to serve and protect everyone equally, not disproportionately stop and harass only certain communities. Rather than express surprise and shock during a summer where six black men have been killed by police in highly questionable circumstances, it is up to us to do something.

The single most important first step is to provide accountability—including through the Attorney General's issuance of a comprehensive ban on racial profiling. Accountability will advance justice for past harms and pave the way forward for a future in which we are closer to the promise of equal justice for all.

Sign our petition asking the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice to stop funneling billions into the militarization of state and local police forces.

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ACLU of Mississippi Requests Harrison County Chancery Court Record Vital Documents

August 14, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 14, 2014

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; mmiller@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – On Thursday, August 14, the ACLU of Mississippi sent the Harrison County Chancery Court a letter requesting the clerk record the out-of-state marriage licenses of two same-sex couples for public record. The letter is in response to a refusal on the part of the Harrison County Chancery Clerk to record the marriage licenses during the Campaign for Southern Equality’s day of statewide action. The letter requests the Clerk comply with the law and record the vital document. It also asks that the Clerk treat all people with dignity and respect.

Read the letter.

Empowering and Protecting Our Students

August 12, 2014

By Constance Gordon, Advocacy Coordinator

I remember waiting anxiously for the last day of school, then by July, being ready for the first day again. That was the rollercoaster that was summer break! Only after the bad years was it any different. There were so many good times but the bad times to a child are the ones that shape their future. Each day, a child is bullied or discriminated against in their school. Each day, an innocent child leaves their school campus with a frown and many have no one to turn to once they arrive home. I know that I can’t be there for each child, but I do know that we can educate and empower them through knowledge. The first step in protecting our children is empowering them with the knowledge of their rights.

In a 1969 case called Tinker v. Des Moines, a Supreme Court judge deemed that students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. The Constitution still applies, therefore it still protects. Students have the right to feel comfortable and not threatened in schools. Students have the right to equal education. Students have a right to tell an adult and that adult must protect that child. If not, that child’s rights have been violated. There is no room for bias in an environment that is to nurture the future decision makers of our country. There is no specific look of success and no specific personality trait that leads to it. All children must know they are equal and be treated that way.

Knowing that there are systems in place to criminalize our children for normal adolescent behavior makes it imperative that we educate them on their rights. Many times, a student simply “didn’t know,” or someone “told me I couldn’t do this,” or more importantly, “didn’t think anyone would do anything.” This is where we (adults) come in because the more of their rights they know, the less wrongs they will be a victim of. Bullying, harassment and/or discrimination does not always come from other students. Sometimes students are being mistreated by faculty and/or staff. That’s why it’s as important for you to be involved in a student’s school life as it is for you to make sure they know their rights. Sometimes knowing isn’t enough and they need guardians or other caring adults to step in.

It’s hard for a kid to tell an adult that they are afraid. Know this. Know and pay attention. There are things you can look for such as: decline in grades, lack of social activity, depression, unexplained fear or lack of interest in attending school, or blaming themselves for everything with feelings of helplessness or rage. Never disregard a cry for help. Many children don’t know adults care and feel like no one will do anything to protect them. Act.

I couldn’t imagine my rights being violated by my educators and others I look to for guidance and protection. Most importantly, I don’t want to think about youth not being heard, not being led and not being protected. School is about to start, not only for the kids but for the adults who make up their community. We all have to know our rights and protect the rights of students! Make sure the youth in every community are protected, educated and leave their school campus with a smile.

Learn about student rights.

ACLU and Planned Parenthood Release Infographic on TRAP Laws

August 08, 2014

Continuing the Conversation After Arizona's Execution

July 25, 2014

By Alison Steiner, President, ACLU of Mississippi Board of Directors

"The capital punishment system is discriminatory and arbitrary and inherently violates the Constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, and looks forward to the day when the United States joins the majority of nations in abolishing it.” -ACLU Policy Statement on Capital Punishment

The ACLU has long been known and respected for its unstinting efforts at the elimination of capital punishment, and to securing systemic reform of the death penalty process so long as it is still with us.

Success of the abolition campaigns has been particularly impressive of late. In the last six years six states have decided that they, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, will “no longer tinker with the machinery of death,”i.e.will no longer try to systemically reform something that is not worth the effort of fixing.

Arguments for abolition have successfully invoked the undeniable racial discrimination in who is even prosecuted for death-eligible offenses. They have also relied upon disproportionate rate of DNA-based exonerations of people on death row and the unacceptably high risks of condemnation and execution of the innocent. Where they have worked, these arguments have propelled legislatures and executive branches to find the death penalty not worth its very considerable expense any more.

However, this has happened mostly in states where the death penalty was already falling in to disuse, or, as in Illinois, had already been stopped by executive moratoria and pardons. In most of these places, new death sentences were rare. In some, actual executions so uncommon that no one in the corrections systems had ever performed one.

These same arguments have not had as much traction in the hard core, particularly southern, death penalty states where death rows are large, new sentences, though rarer than before, are still regularly imposed, and executions are being conducted with disturbing frequency.

I think that this may be because the debate has mostly focused on the condemned people – is it unfair to them to be subjected to this racially disproportionate punishment, or face a not insignificant possibility that they are innocent yet condemned, when other, effective means of punishment are also available? Only indirectly does it talk about “us” and our distaste at collaborating in these injustices.

The event in Oklahoma, where the slow, agonizing death suffered by Clayton Lockett was, at least for a short time, witnessed by the world, have shifted that focus. Though it was Mr. Lockett who was being tortured to death, it was “us” – and by “us” I mean even the people conducting the execution – who were horrified by what we were witnessing. Even strong death penalty proponents had to admit that what happened to Clayton Lockett violated the Eighth Amendment.

Most recently, in Arizona, it took the state 1 hour and 57 minutes to execute Joseph Wood who gasped for air 660 times. Arizona rushed to execute him in secret and ignored the warnings of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Dennis McGuire in Ohio.

The conversation about capital punishment is once again questioning whether death penalty can, at least in practice, ever be anything other than a barbarity to which we must just say no, and that taints us as much as it harms the person we have condemned to suffer it.

The mostly conservative, mostly white politicians who, for now at least, still control legislatures and state-houses in the hard-core southern death penalty states, including Mississippi, have no reason to put themselves out politically for the people on death row, even the innocent ones. They can easily rationalize, ignore or deny the arguments that focus on the condemned people.

But like all human beings, most of these powerful men and women want to appear morally upright to the rest of the world. When the conversation focuses on their own part in maintaining a system that can allow someone to be strapped down, improperly sedated and then given just enough poison to cause a fatal heart attack half an hour later, we may be able to get their attention.

At the very least, we need to try.