October 06, 2014
By Andres Wallace, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Mississippi
Imagine for one second—driving down the street, when suddenly (or not so suddenly) you happen upon a police roadblock. You know that you have not had any alcohol. You approach the roadblock—confident that the roadblock will be brief. However, this is no ordinary roadblock. This is a No Refusal roadblock—one wherein motorists who are suspected of driving impaired and subsequently refuses sobriety tests could, upon issuance of a warrant by a judge, be ordered to submit to a blood test
According to the Clarion-Ledger, on September 5 and 6, eight Mississippi counties participated in the “No Refusal” weekend campaign. The Clarion Ledger also reported that there were 152 DUI arrests and 31 blood samples taken.
Now, if you are anything like me, you are asking yourself—can they do that? Are we sure this happened in the United States? The answer to both of those questions is, unfortunately, yes. Naturally, you hear that the “No Refusal” weekend campaign is legal and you then ask yourself—how can that be legal?
Recently, the United States Supreme Court has ruled on a case that essentially establishes the proper procedures that an officer must follow in order to be able to draw a driver’s blood.
Before, I discuss the legality of the “No Refusal” weekend campaign, I would like to say that I understand that driving under the influence is a problem in the state of Mississippi. I also realize that DUI related accidents have been rising in the state over the past few years. However, although drivers driving under the influence continue to be a problem—we as a society must be careful of the liberties that we sacrifice in order to solve a problem, such a DUI.
In order to fully understand the “No Refusal” campaign, let’s discuss the legality of sobriety check points. The United States Supreme Court has established that a police checkpoint set for the purpose of identifying intoxicated driver was consistent with the Fourth-Amendment. In essence, the Supreme Court established that a checkpoint established for identifying drunk drivers is constitutional if properly conducted.
So, now that we have established that a sobriety checkpoint is legal, one question comes to mind— what gives an officer the right to draw an individual’s blood? Well, in 2013 the United States Supreme Court, in Missouri v. McNeely, established that a warrantless blood draw is a violation of one’s Fourth Amendment rights; however, the Court also noted that “other factors present in an ordinary traffic stop, such as procedures in place for obtaining a warrant or the availability of a magistrate judge, may affect whether the police can obtain a warrant in an expeditious way.” At a No Refusal checkpoint, judges are available to sign warrant at the request of the officer.
The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure applies when an intrusion into the body—such as a blood test—is undertaken without a warrant, absent an emergency situation. In ruling on McNeely, the Court has indirectly given justification for the drawing of blood at a traffic stop—if a warrant is properly obtained.
At the No Refusal checkpoints, the police are supposed to rely on their suspicion of drunkenness as the probable cause for a search warrant. If a citizen is stopped at a No Refusal Checkpoint but shows no sign of intoxication, there would be no probable cause for the issuance of a warrant. Without probable cause, no warrant should be issued. In essence, the Judge will then have the final say as to whether there is probable cause to conduct a blood draw. If however, a warrant is issued where no probable cause exists, there would be a clear Fourth Amendment violation.
As much as it pains me to say this, if conducted pursuant to a valid warrant, the drawing of an individual’s blood at a “No Refusal” checkpoint would be constitutional.
Although No Refusal campaigns are constitutional, I am still very concerned about an individual’s inability to refuse. If I refuse to take a breathalyzer test, my license should be suspended—that should be the price that I pay for refusing to take the test. Why am I being forced to submit to a bloodtest? There seems to be other means of achieving the goal of deterring drivers from driving intoxicated. Drawing blood seems like an extraordinary measure—where other less intrusive methods are available.
Additionally, I am critical of the use of a refusal to submit to a breathalyzer as the basis for probable cause. I also wonder what the cost would be to the taxpayer for these tests, and how many of them would come back positive. I believe that these issues will become more contentious as more states adopt their own versions of the No-Refusal campaign.
If you come upon a checkpoint, exhibit no signs which would trigger the officer's assertion of probable cause and are still forced to submit to the invasion of a blood draw please contact us at email@example.com or 601-354-3408.
September 29, 2014
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Jennifer Riley-Collins, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; firstname.lastname@example.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:
Read the letter to law enforcement agencies.
Learn more about the right to record.
September 24, 2014
By Brandon Buskey, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project
Octavious Burks has been waiting for 10 months.
He's locked in a jail in Scott County, Mississippi. He hasn't been formally charged. He hasn't been assigned an attorney.
This is a recurring nightmare for Octavious: The same thing happened in 2009 and 2012. In each case, he was held for roughly a year. Each time, he was eventually released without a trial or a conviction. Octavious has spent over three years of his life locked in a cell without ever being formally charged – let alone found guilty – of a crime.
In November of 2013, Octavious was arrested in connection with a robbery. The judge set his bail at $30,000, which Octavious could not afford. Also unable to pay for a lawyer, Octavious applied for a public defender. The court approved his request, but 10 months later Octavious still hasn't received an attorney – an advocate who could fight to lower his bail, challenge his arrest, or prepare for a trial.
Why not? Because he has never been formally charged with a crime.
That's how it works in Scott County: No one gets a public defender until they've been indicted. In other places, this might not be a big deal. In Colorado, prosecutors have 72 hours after an arrest to formally indict someone. In Kansas, it's two weeks. But in Scott County and throughout Mississippi, the wait could last forever. That's because Mississippi doesn't limit how long a prosecutor has to indict someone, even if that someone is wasting away in jail.
In Scott County, felony indictments are only issued three times a year, after a grand jury convenes to formally charge defendants with their crimes. If you're lucky, you might wait two months to hear about your charges. If you're unlucky, you're put off until the next session. That's at least another four months in jail. And if you're like Octavious, you're left completely in the dark for months on end.
Octavious is not alone in the darkness – dozens of people are locked in the Scott County jail, without attorneys or formal charges. And this problem isn't confined to one jail in one county. People statewide are losing months and sometimes years of their lives to a glacial justice system. That means years without work. Years without being able to care for their families. Years without knowing when the ordeal will end. All without the state having to prove a thing.
The Constitution protects you from being arbitrarily imprisoned on a mere allegation. When you're accused of a crime, you have a right to an attorney, even if you can't afford one. You have a right to a speedy trial. Scott County cannot pretend as if the Constitution doesn't apply in its courts. That's why the ACLU yesterday filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Octavious and others trapped in the Scott County jail, demanding that local judges, sheriffs, and district attorneys change the way they do business.
It's time for Scott County to stop illegally robbing people of their lives.
September 24, 2014
For Immediate Release
CONTACT: Alexandra Ringe, email@example.com, 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:
More information about the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project is available here:
ACLU National blog about the case:
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.
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.
June 24, 2014
Report Shows Injustice, Suffering, Caused by SWAT Teams Deployed for Low-Level Police Work, Not Crises
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW YORK – After obtaining and analyzing thousands of documents from police departments around the country, today the American Civil Liberties Union released the report War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. The ACLU focused on more than 800 SWAT raids conducted by law enforcement agencies in 20 states and on the agencies’ acquisition of military weaponry, vehicles, and equipment.
"We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs," said Kara Dansky, Senior Counsel with the ACLU’s Center for Justice. "Carried out by ten or more officers armed with assault rifles, flashbang grenades, and battering rams, these paramilitary raids disproportionately impacted people of color, sending the clear message that the families being raided are the enemy. This unnecessary violence causes property damage, injury, and death."
The report documents multiple tragedies caused by police carrying out needless SWAT raids, including a 26-year-old mother shot with her child in her arms and a 19-month-old baby critically injured when a flashbang grenade landed in his crib.
"Our police are trampling on our civil rights and turning communities of color into war zones," Dansky continued. "We all pay for it with our tax dollars. The Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice give police military weaponry and vehicles as well as grants for military equipment. The War on Drugs has failed, yet the federal government hasn’t stopped the flow of guns and money."
The report calls for the federal government to rein in the incentives for police to militarize. The ACLU also asks that local, state, and federal governments track the use of SWAT and the guns, tanks, and other military equipment that end up in police hands.
"Our findings reveal not only the dangers of militarized police, but also the difficulties in determining the extent and impact of those dangers. At every level – from the police to the state governments to the federal government – there is almost no recordkeeping about SWAT or the use of military weapons and vehicles by local law enforcement," noted Dansky.
In addition, the report recommends that state legislatures and municipalities develop criteria for SWAT raids that limit their deployment to the kinds of emergencies for which they were intended, such as an active shooter situation.
The report is available here: www.aclu.org/militarization
June 10, 2014
For Immediate Release
June 10, 2014
JACKSON, Miss – Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, MS, is one of the 13 little-known CAR (Criminal Alien Requirement) prisons for immigrants in the United States. For the new report Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas have investigated one CAR prison in Texas run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the same private prison company that operates Adams County Correctional Center. The report reveals inhumane conditions and egregious mistreatment of immigrants in prisons that enrich the for-profit prison industry at tremendous costs to taxpayers.
“Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation – ranking behind only Louisiana, according to the Department of Justice. Criminalizing immigration means making it a part of a system that is already overburdened by a mass incarceration crisis and plagued by for-profit companies turning our tax dollars into revenue” said Jennifer Riley-Collins. “The abuse and mistreatment of prisoners in the Adams County facility lead to a riot in 2012. The facility holds nearly 2,500 inmates most of them convicted for being in the country illegally after deportation. These immigration cases should be handled by civil immigration authorities not the criminal justice system.”
The culmination of a four-year investigation, the report shows how the federal Bureau of Prisons incentivizes private prison companies to keep CAR prisons overcrowded and understaffed. The companies provide scant medical care that is often administered incorrectly, if delivered at all. At the CCA operated prison in Concho County, Texas, the 1,550 prisoners are reportedly packed so tightly that their beds spill out into the hallways.
As Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, explained, “The shameful conditions inside CAR prisons come from the government’s decision to allow the suffering inside these for-profit prisons. For instance, 10% of the bed space in CAR prisons is reserved for extreme isolation—nearly double the rate in normal federal prisons. I spoke to prisoners who spent weeks in isolation cells after being sent there upon intake—simply arriving at prison was the reason why they were locked in a cell and fed through a slot for 23 hours a day.”
CAR prisons hold non-citizens who have been convicted of crimes in the U.S., mostly for immigration offenses (such as unlawfully reentering the country).
Read the report: www.aclu.org/CARabuse
May 09, 2014
By Jennifer Riley-Collins, Executive Director and Charles B. Irvin, Legal Director
Last year, we co-sponsored the “Not Here, Never Again” event on the anniversary of the birth of Emmitt Till. We held the event in the wake of the court’s decision in George Zimmerman trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin. We wanted the opportunity to educate our youth regarding how to respond when encountering the police. We trained these youth on their rights because we were determined that senseless deaths of our youth at the hands of persons acting under the color of law would not happen here.
We recognized that this was not the first time a young person’s life was stolen at the hands of law enforcement. We can easily recall Oscar Grant killed in Fruitvale Station; Henry Glover was shot to death and his body was burned by New Orleans police officers following Hurricane Katrina; Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by New York City police officers while unarmed. Mississippi has seen its own share of police misconduct which resulted in the death of thriving young men. In May 1970, two young men Phillip Gibbs and James Green were killed by the police in what is referred to as the Jackson State killings. In February 2006, Jessie Williams died of traumatic brain injury after he was beaten by a jailer in Harrison County. And on Monday, May 5, 2014, another young man, Justin Griffin, had his life taken at the hands of a law enforcement officer abusing his authority.
What happened to “protect and serve”? This motto is how we are expected to think about the officers who serve us. Did they forget? Increasingly, nationwide trends suggest that while most officers are protecting and serving, we are in a different space of “aggressive policing.” And in this space, more and more citizens are having their rights and freedoms violated. On a state by state basis, 22 states currently have a police misconduct rate above the US average of 977.98 per 100k. Mississippi is in the top five by geographic distribution. This is alarming when you consider the makeup of law enforcement around the state. Mississippi is comprised of a majority of small forces by county and municipality.
Over aggressive policing is akin to a micro-organism leading to unhealthy returns, such as the misuse of force. The Courts have also weighed in on the effects of over aggressive policing. “It is a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, which may inflict great indignity and arouse strong resentment, and it is not to be undertaken lightly,” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 17 (1967). Despite this reality, instead of “not here, never again” we find ourselves saying “here we are yet again.”
The government’s failure to hold officers accountable for misconduct or excessive use of force has endowed officers with a sense of impunity. Mississippi’s government must intervene to ensure constitutional and human rights in Mississippi are protected. Government leaders need to prioritize better training, supervision, control, and monitoring of officers’ use of force to ensure all Mississippians are safe from unlawful police violence and free to exercise their First Amendment rights.
For more information on what to do if you're stopped by the police, visit our Know Your Rights page.
May 08, 2014
The olive branch is universally recognized as a token of peace. In Mississippi's DeSoto County however, Olive Branch's high school embodies zero tolerance at its worst.
Dontadrian Bruce, a student at Olive Branch High School, didn't know what to expect when he was summoned to the assistant principal's office on a Monday morning last February. He was surprised when Assistant Principal Todd Nichols pointed to a photo of the 15-year-old posing with his classmates in front of their biology project — a model of the DNA molecule built with Lego blocks — and said, "This is a gang sign. You're a gang banger."
In the photo, Dontadrian, intending to represent his number on the school's football team, was holding up his thumb, forefinger and middle finger. That innocent body language, according to Nichols, was sure-fire evidence of affiliation with the Vice Lords, a Chicago-based gang that has a strong presence in Memphis, Tenn., 20 miles northwest of Olive Branch.
"I said, 'I'm not in a gang,' but he said, 'Yes, you are. You're a gang banger,'" Dontadrian recalls. Over his vigorous protestations, Dontadrian was suspended for gang activity.
His mother, Janet Hightower, was shocked when she got a call telling her to pick up her son. "He'd never been in trouble at school," she says. "He's a good, respectful young man."
Three days later, Dontadrian appeared before a disciplinary hearing, where a school-delegated "gang specialist" presented a photo of a Vice Lords member making a gesture similar to Dontadrian's — proof, he said, that Dontadrian had indeed flashed a gang sign.
Hightower questioned the specialist's assertion. She had Googled images of gang signs and found only one photo of a sign resembling the one Dontadrian had made. It was the exact same photo offered by the gang specialist as irrefutable proof of gang activity. "He claimed my son was in a gang, but the only evidence he had was that one photo."
She was further dismayed by the school administration's failure to conduct a thorough inquiry before suspending Dontadrian. "They didn't look at his academic and disciplinary record before suspending him," she says. They never asked his teachers, his coach or his friends if he was in a gang. They should have investigated first, had a conversation with the people who know him."
Despite little concrete evidence beyond conjecture, the disciplinary hearing officer suspended Dontadrian for the remaining five months of the school year and recommended expulsion.
"Because I'm Black"
According to the school administration, the action was taken because Olive Branch High School is guided by a "zero-tolerance" policy regarding gang activity. But Hightower and her son take a different view.
"When he talks about what happened and why, he says, 'They think I'm in a gang because I'm Black,'" she said.
Hightower is less certain that race was the predominant factor in Dontadrian's excessive punishment, but thinks it may have played a part. "I love Olive Branch, and I love the way they teach," she says. "But I'm not going to say there aren't any prejudiced people in the schools here."
She contends that the school and district administrators are predisposed to overreaction, and that the application of zero-tolerance policies is inconsistent at best. This was underscored by the school's decision to suspend Dontadrian's older brother, Dontavis, who in an act of solidarity posed with a group of classmates for a photo in which they all held up the incriminatory hand gesture. In all, 10 students posed for the photo, yet only Dontavis was suspended.
"They suspended him for three days, but not the other kids," she says. "They all made the same sign. Why single out Dontavis?"
Olive Branch High School is just the latest DeSoto County school to expel a student for gang involvement based on little or no evidence. In 2009, the ACLU sued the district on behalf of a student at Southaven Middle School who was expelled after authorities illegally searched his cell phone and found photos that they claimed depicted "gang-related activity." In actuality, the photos depicted the student dancing in the bathroom of his own home.
Moreover, the district has a record of disproportionately disciplining students of color. In 2011 (the last year data was available), student enrollment was 60.4 percent white, 31.8 percent Black, and 6 percent Hispanic — yet Black and Hispanic students who were suspended totaled 58.8 percent.
Such disparities are hardly confined to DeSoto County, however. Nationally, according to recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Civil Rights Data Collection, "Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students."
Harsh disciplinary policies have far-reaching impact on the educational development of the students affected, often resulting in lower school achievement and a spiral that singles out and criminalizes children who would otherwise be on a different path. This spiral, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, is delineated in the DOE guiding principles for improving school climate and discipline, issued in January 2014:
"Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again, repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system."
Determined to keep her son from entering a similar cycle of suspension, expulsion, or worse, Janet Hightower shrewdly enlisted local media in the effort to reverse the school's decision. After several area news reports on the incident aired, Dontadrian was permitted to return to school 21 days after his suspension.
"I don't think the school wanted the media attention," Hightower says. "They knew I wasn't going to back out or back down until their decision was overturned."
Dontadrian's return, however, came with a caveat: Hightower would have to agree to a one-year probation for her son. She refused.
"It would have been like saying my son was guilty," she explains. "Besides, it didn't make sense with their policy. Either he was guilty and should be expelled, or he was innocent and should be allowed back. Period."
Following a series of discussions between Hightower and Olive Branch's principal, the school finally backed down and removed the conditions from Dontadrian's return.
Hightower's advice to parents whose children are in a similar position: "If you think your child is innocent, fight back. Do whatever it takes."
"It Could Happen to Anyone's Child"
Dontadrian's suspension is behind him, but not its ramifications. The A and B student has struggled to catch up with his classmates, and brought home two F's in his third-quarter report card at the end of March.
"He's having a hard time," says his mother. "This is the first time he's ever had an F. It's really taking a toll on him trying to catch up on everything."
For Dontadrian, hard work, determination, and his family's support may well keep him out of the school-to-prison pipeline. But given the reality that children of color and children with disabilities are unduly affected by school disciplinary policies, how do other students avoid becoming statistics? The DOE guiding principles offer a solution:
"[s]chools should provide professional development and training to equip educators to […] respond to student misconduct fairly, equitably, and without regard to a student's personal characteristics (e.g., race, color, national origin, religion, disability, ethnicity, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or status as an English language learner, migrant, or homeless student)."
Meanwhile, Dontadrian's expulsion has turned Hightower into a vocal opponent of zero-tolerance policies, and school-to-prison pipeline issues in general. She currently is working with the ACLU's Mississippi affiliate to bring about a change in school policy that she hopes will prevent future incidents for all children in the DeSoto County School District.
"It happened to my son," she says. "If it doesn't get fixed, it could happen to anyone's child."