By Erik R. Fleming, Legislative Strategist

 

The 2016 Mississippi Legislative Session promises to be intriguing. There will be a host of new faces roaming the Capitol in both houses and a number of issues will dominate the session, primarily education funding, changing of the State Flag and the allocation of the $1.5 billion BP settlement. However, the ACLU of Mississippi will push a set of legislation that we believe will be topics of substantive debate as well.

MISSISSIPPI CIVIL RIGHTS ACT

This legislation protects all Mississippians from discrimination and is the major focus of our “We Are ALL Mississippi” Campaign, which will affect a culture change in our state. With the support of a coalition of organizations, the Campaign holds our state accountable and stands on our bedrock values: respect, equality, and acting with decency towards our fellow man. We are asking the state legislature to protect everyone and prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, immigrant status, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation. WE ARE ALL MISSISSIPPI!

DEBTORS’ PRISONS

Imprisoning citizens because of debt is unconstitutional in the United States. However, we have seen a resurgence of “debtors’ prisons” that has put thousands in jail for being too poor to pay fines for traffic tickets or other minor misdemeanors, under the cover of contempt of court. A clear definition of an indigent defendant has never been established in Mississippi, therefore, adequate representation has been arbitrary and incarceration as a result of an inability to pay fines, fees and court costs has been almost certain. The ACLU of Mississippi is introducing legislation that clearly defines indigency, establishes a substantial right for poor people to be represented by counsel in court, and limits the courts’ ability to incarcerate citizens for failure to pay fines in a timely manner. No one should be forced to face jail time because of their inability to pay fines.

SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICER TRAINING

We will resubmit legislation to amend Section § 37-7-321, of the Mississippi Code of 1972 that requires all School Resource Officers (SROs) complete a uniform statewide training program prior to being permitted to serve in a school. That curricula should include, at a minimum, training on child and adolescent development; cultural competence; violence de-escalation; identifying a student’s social, emotional and mental needs; alternatives to use of force; and due process protections for students. Currently, school districts that qualify for MSCOPS grants for SROs send their officers to a comprehensive training program. This legislation will provide a safety net for all school districts, in that they would have competent officers to compensate for the 20% attrition rate of potential SROs that do not complete the MSCOPS training.

WRITTEN CONSENT TO SEARCH VEHICLES

Police search thousands of cars each year at Mississippi traffic stops, usually looking for guns or drugs, through a simple request for a driver to consent. Drivers often don’t know that they can say no, or may feel coerced and isolated by the side of the road. However, law enforcement does not need permission to search a car if there is evidence of reasonable suspicion of a crime. The ACLU of Mississippi is introducing legislation to ensure that drivers understand their constitutional right to say no to a request to search by requiring written consent with a simple disclosure. This will cover instances when an officer doesn’t have a warrant, is not making an arrest, or does not have probable cause. Written consent improves policing as well as protects public safety and civil liberties.

POLICIES FOR BODY CAMERAS USED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT

Body cameras have the potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers. They are a win-win, helping to protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time guarding against false accusations of abuse. The challenge body cameras present is the potential for invasion of privacy, while also balancing the strong benefit in promoting police accountability. We will introduce legislation that ensures that body cameras will serve to protect the public, without becoming another system for routine surveillance. While our legislation will not mandate that all Mississippi law enforcement officers be equipped with body cameras, it will, for the sake of public confidence in the integrity of valued privacy protections, make sure that those that are equipped will do so within a framework of strong policies.

The ACLU of Mississippi looks forward to working with the 174 members of the Mississippi State Legislature to obtain the successful passage of these measures, while at the same time remaining vigilant to defeat any legislation that goes against our core principles of reformation, justice, equality, and freedom.