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by ACLU

Calling The Police Can Get You Evicted

12:43 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Katie Miller, Litigation Fellow, & Sandra Park, Staff Attorney, ACLU Women’s Rights Project

Across the country, a growing number of cities are adopting nuisance ordinances that impose fines and criminal penalties on landlords and tenants when the police are called too many times to the property. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, landlords may be fined if the police are called to the premises three or more times within 30 days. While the stated goal is to deter crime and recoup costs, these ordinances endanger domestic violence survivors, particularly women of color.

Property nuisance ordinances can take a variety of forms, but generally impose fines or other sanctions on building owners and tenants when the police are called to the premises a certain number of times, or where certain offenses are alleged to have occurred on the property. Under these ordinances, the only practical way for an owner to abate the "nuisance" and avoid a penalty is to evict the resident who called the police or whose home was the site of the alleged offense.

These ordinances present two very serious problems for women who experience domestic violence or stalking, two crimes that often occur in one’s home: They may prevent victims from calling the police when they are endangered by an abuser or stalker, and they may result in housing discrimination against victims of domestic violence. The ACLU of Washington raised both of these concerns when a nuisance ordinance was adopted in Seattle.

If a tenant knows that multiple calls to the police will lead to eviction, she may feel forced to remain silent to avoid homelessness. This means that a victim of domestic violence may not be able to seek police assistance when she faces abuse or needs to enforce a restraining order.

Take Laurie Grape: After two calls to the police for protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend, Grape was warned that a third call would result in eviction pursuant to the nuisance ordinance in East Rochester, N.Y. Although her ex-boyfriend continued to threaten her, Grape did not contact the police because she feared that she and her children would lose their home.

In situations where an alleged "nuisance" offense is related to an incident of domestic violence, landlords may choose to evict all the residents to avoid future incidents or police calls that could result in a fine. Yet, these evictions violate federal law. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has made it clear that tenants who are denied or evicted from housing because they have suffered domestic violence can file sex discrimination complaints with HUD under the federal Fair Housing Act.

Because these ordinances may disproportionately affect domestic violence survivors, most of whom are women, we are concerned that they deny women their right to housing. If you have been evicted or threatened with eviction because you experienced domestic violence, or have been discouraged from calling the police to report domestic violence, we want to hear from you: www.aclu.org/dvsurvey.

by ACLU

Our Secret Security Establishment: the Big Picture

3:27 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Program

At the ACLU we’ve warned regularly about the dangers of our gigantic national security establishment — whether in calling for increased oversight, fixes for runaway government secrecy, in our report on the emerging public-private “Surveillance-Industrial Complex,” and in many other places.

Now the Washington Post has issued a major new investigative report on what it calls “Top Secret America” — a geographically sprawling network of secret government agencies with a budget of $75 billion. Based on the Post’s reporting, it is no exaggeration to say that our secret intelligence establishment has spun out of control.

The report — the first in a series of three to be published this week — contains amazing new hard reporting that confirms what has long been known to those who pay attention.

The national security establishment is out of control.

The fact is, bureaucracies almost always seek to expand their own power and budgets. Add secrecy powers that protect them from independent public oversight, ineffective oversight by Congress and even from within the executive branch, and mix in ever-expanding budgets, and you’ve got a recipe for an out-of-control security establishment:

  • The Post reports that 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence at 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • Two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside in the Department of Defense — a worrisome militarization of our intelligence capabilities, especially at a time when those capabilities are increasingly being turned inward upon the American people.
  • The $75 billion intelligence budget is 2 ½ times its size before 9/11. The budget of the NSA doubled between 2002 and today.
  • There is no person or agency with the “authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these activities,” in the words of one official. “There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all” secret programs, the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence told the Post. “That’s God.” However, since men are not angels, as James Madison wrote, checks and balances on government power are crucial, and that state of affairs is frightening and unacceptable.
  • Since there is no one overseeing all this, there is also no way of knowing how effective it all is. One top general complained to the Post, for example, that the National Counterterrorism Center “never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!”

The government is drowning in information.

As I’ve written before, computers are the dominant metaphor of our age and everyone thinks we can stop evil in the world if we can just collect enough data. But the Post paints a stark portrait of hundreds of government agencies drowning in data, as government systems vacuum up vast quantities of information about daily activities across the planet in the unlikely hope of discovering useful information. Unsurprisingly, the government cannot possibly make sense of all that data:

  • The National Security Agency is intercepting 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other communications per day.
  • Analysts publish 50,000 intelligence reports each year.
  • “The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them,” the Post reports.

Out-of-control secrecy is counterproductive.

The United States created a system for allowing government workers to hide information from the public that is supposed to be their ultimate boss, and from the beginning, that power has been misused by bureaucracies to increase their power and hide waste and abuse. The Post reports examples showing how:

  • Secrecy means that different organizations throughout the government often work on the same issues, creating enormous redundancy.
  • Secrecy undermines the chain of command, as bureaucrats abuse it to keep rivals out of the loop, and subordinates find they are required to keep secrets from their bosses or commanders.
  • Secrecy is abused to protect ineffective projects and evade oversight. The CIA reclassified information at a higher level of classification than it had previously thought necessary, the Post reports, in order to prevent officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) from seeing it.

The Washington Post and the authors of this piece have not only done some very good investigative reporting, but they also do what the media too seldom does: use that reporting to take a step back from the day-to-day details of life inside government and show the big picture.

A civil liberties issue

It’s important to recognize that is not just a question of whether the redundant, ineffective, in-fighting bureaucracies described by the Post represent a good use of our nation’s treasure. The growth of the secret security state is a civil liberties issue.

The presence of what the Post (in an online video accompanying its article) calls a “Fourth Branch of Government” outside those created by our Founders should give all Americans pause. The fact that this “branch” is one that operates under a veil of secrecy and with little oversight makes it all the worse. And above all, we should not forget that a lot of these agencies’ activities are harming innocent people. Travel and financial watchlists are created. Names are added (often for obscure reasons) but not subtracted. Americans are spied upon for political reasons. Personal communications are eavesdropped upon on a stunning scale. And the bureaucratic curtain of secrecy often gives individuals no way to defend their rights.

Action needed

The ACLU is doing everything we can to raise awareness of these problems. Most recently, we announced the launch of a new “Spyfiles” web page focused on political spying.

But unless Congress takes action, this problem is only going to get worse. Congress needs to sharply increase its oversight of “Top Secret America” — in particular by:

  • Taking a close look at the individual programs it’s funding
  • Whether those programs are delivering value commensurate with their budgets
  • Whether management of the national security establishment as a whole needs to be reevaluated
  • Whether that establishment as a whole makes sense in its current size and shape

Of course, Congress isn’t entirely to blame — in 2007 it did create an independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board with some significant powers for overseeing anti-terrorism efforts. But, the Obama administration has failed to appoint anybody to that board. Like Congress, the administration too must recognize the importance of solving these problems, lest its legacy for future generations of Americans be a secret security establishment that continues to waste money and violate individual rights.

by ACLU

New National AIDS Strategy Will Address Discrimination Against Those Living with HIV/AIDS

2:02 pm in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Ian Thompson, Senior Legislative Assistant, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

The Obama administration will unveil a first of its kind national AIDS strategy on Tuesday, which took 15 months of work to complete. In a preview in Monday’s New York Times(which has obtained an advance copy of the national strategy), the administration plans to focus most intensively on reducing the number of new annual HIV infections, which currently stands at roughly 56,000, as well as increasing the number of people receiving care and treatment.

Recognizing those who have been disproportionately impacted in this country by the disease, the strategy calls for more attention and resources to be directed towards gay and bisexual men, who account for over half of the new infections each year, as well as to African-Americans, who account for 46 percent of those living with HIV.

Particularly noteworthy from a civil liberties and civil rights prospective is the strategy’s recognition of the persistent discrimination those living with HIV face, and the harm it does to efforts to fight the disease and limit its spread. The strategy states:

The stigma associated with H.I.V. remains extremely high…People living with H.I.V. may still face discrimination in many areas of life, including employment, housing, provision of health care services and access to public accommodations.

The administration goes on to state that they plan to strengthen enforcement of civil rights laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to protect those with HIV/AIDS. Of particular note, former ACLU legislative counsel and current EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum was a principal drafter of the ADA while working for the ACLU.

The issue of discrimination against those with HIV is something the ACLU has been very active in over the years. For example, the ACLU currently has a complaint pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Counselor for the Eastern Region of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), charging that TSA violated its own policies barring discrimination against those with disabilities when it refused a job as baggage screener to an applicant simply because of his HIV status.

Knowing what your rights are in this area is critically important. Click here for a copy of HIV and Civil Rights – Know Your Rights in the Workplace.

Michael Lamarre was told that the reason for his ultimate rejection, despite successfully completing a rigorous application process, was because his HIV status made him more susceptible to viruses and infections and that it was for his own benefit, despite the fact that medical experts and his own doctor said he is no more likely to catch a cold or virus than anyone else. Misinformation and outdated stereotypes about those who have HIV remain a far too common daily reality for those who live with the disease, including in our nation’s jails and prisons.

In August of 2009, after more than two decades of intense advocacy by the ACLU, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) officials ended a longstanding ban of prisoners with HIV from participating in the state’s work release program. The ACLU, as well as other advocates, long argued that the ban was an arbitrary and discriminatory denial to participation in a program essential for aiding prisoners’ successful reintegration into society. During a federal trial in the mid-1990s, an Alabama warden testified that the segregation of HIV-positive prisoners was an essential security measure since people with HIV were as dangerous as rattlesnakes. Despite the recent positive developments around allowing HIV-positive prisoners to participate in Alabama’s work release program, both Alabama and South Carolina continue the degrading and inhumane practice of segregating HIV-positive prisoners. Prisoners in the HIV units are forced to wear armbands or other indicators of their HIV status, and are denied equal participation in prison jobs, programs and re-entry opportunities that facilitate their successful transition back into society.

In addition to discrimination, criminalization of HIV is also a reality in much of the country. According to the New York Times, at least 32 states have criminal statutes specific to HIV, many of which date to the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s when fear and paranoia of the disease was at its most destructive peak. The Times reports:

In Pennsylvania and Louisiana, people with H.I.V. can be sentenced to as much as 10 years in prison for spitting at or biting another person, even though scientists have long concluded that transmitting the virus through saliva is virtually impossible. In Missouri, people can be sentenced to life in prison if they infect others without their knowledge.

Additionally, the ACLU of Michigan filed an amicus brief in the case of an HIV-positive man who faced bio-terrorism charges after he bit another man during an altercation. Thankfully, a judge recently threw out the bio-terrorism charges against the man (he still faces other charges stemming from the incident), however, the case illustrates the absurd ways in which HIV is still being treated under criminal laws in many states.

There is obviously much work that needs to be done to confront the discrimination and criminalization that those living with HIV/AIDS continue to face. The administration’s commitment to strengthen enforcement of civil rights laws to protect those who have the disease is a promising step, as is the release of the first-ever national HIV/AIDS strategy.

by ACLU

Fox Wildly Distorts ACLU Religious Liberty Case

11:58 am in Uncategorized by ACLU

By Heather L. Weaver, Staff Attorney, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief

Florida’s Santa Rosa County School District has a long and unrepentant history of unconstitutionally sponsoring prayers, proselytizing students, and generally promoting particular religious beliefs throughout district schools. In August 2008, no longer able to bear this infringement on their liberties, two students at Pace High School sued the district with the assistance of the ACLU. Many in the community reacted in an uproar: the student plaintiffs were vilified in the media and threatened with rape and death, among other efforts to intimidate them, and district officials vowed to fight back. Pace High Principal H. Frank Lay was perhaps the most vocal, declaring during a fiery sermon at an off-campus church service (MP3): "This country is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, there is no doubt about that. . . . I walk up and down the halls everyday and I see tons of kids that aren’t saved. They have hollow eyes. They are void of a spirit. They need Jesus."

But as the case proceeded and overwhelming evidence of a pervasive pattern of egregious constitutional violations continued to mount, it became clear that the district’s activities were indefensible. How could the defendants explain away the Pace High Teacher Handbook, which, on page four, requires school personnel to "embrace every opportunity to inculcate, by precept and example, the practice of every Christian virtue"? How could they justify school officials’ regularly leading or directing students in prayer at extracurricular and athletic events, arranging for prayer during graduation ceremonies, proselytizing students during and outside of class, and sponsoring religious baccalaureate services? How could they defend one teacher’s display of a waist-high white cross in her classroom? They could not, and to the school board’s credit, they (including Lay, a named defendant) admitted liability for their unlawful practices in December 2008, and agreed that the court should enter a preliminary injunction pending a final consent order to be worked out by the parties.

However, though every district employee received a copy of the court’s preliminary injunction ordering school officials to immediately cease their longstanding and pervasive practice of "[p]romoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing, or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school-sponsored events," several decided to flout the court’s authority and directed that school-sponsored prayers take place regardless. After learning of these violations, the court ordered two of those employees — Lay and Pace High Athletic Director Robert Earl Freeman — to face criminal contempt proceedings next month.

During the September 17 hearing, Lay and Freeman will have to answer for their roles in promoting prayer during a school luncheon to dedicate a new field house. (Another school employee will face a separate civil contempt complaint tomorrow for similarly violating the same court order). If held in criminal contempt, the pair could be assessed a fine and/or or assigned up to six months in jail.

Fox News, not surprisingly, has had a field day with the field house prayer, devoting no fewer than five on-air segments to the contempt proceedings in the last week alone, all of which have focused exclusively on the fact that Lay and Freeman could be subject to prison time if found in criminal contempt of court. Consistent with Fox’s modus operandi,each new segment ratcheted up the hysteria with Bill O’Reilly declaring that the judge (who, O’Reilly neglects to mention, was appointed by former President George W. Bush) is "probably an atheist" and Mike Huckabee warning ominously on his show last weekend to "be careful when you pray, Big Brother is watching."

But as LiberalViewer so artfully points out in this YouTube video breaking down these Fox segments, when you take a closer look at the actual facts here (which Fox largely distorts or ignores), the upcoming contempt proceedings are wholly unremarkable:

Lay and Freeman openly violated a federal court order (something judges do not take kindly to) and now they must answer to the judge — facing the same consequences that may be imposed on any person subject to a criminal contempt proceeding in any case. There is nothing unusual about that. Indeed, even if they are found in contempt, it is unlikely that the court will order jail time here; no one — including the ACLU — has argued that prison would be an appropriate sanction in this particular proceeding. Undeterred by these facts, Fox News nevertheless seems more intent on sensationalizing the case than reporting the truth.

If the contempt proceedings against Lay and Freeman are noteworthy at all, it is for an entirely different reason than the controversy ginned up by Fox News and its ilk: in the irony of all ironies, Lay and Freeman’s September 17 court hearing is slated to take place on "Constitution and Citizenship Day," an annual commemoration of the signing of the Constitution, which federal law requires public schools to observe with relevant educational programming.

The confluence of these two events sets the stage for a perfect teachable moment for Santa Rosa students, as there are a number of valuable civics lessons that can be drawn from this case, including, among others, the necessity of respect for the rule of law and the authority of the judicial system; and the vital role that the Constitution plays in protecting those of minority faiths from governmental intrusion and coercion. Let’s just hope that Santa Rosa’s civics teachers, and indeed, teachers across the country, can see through the Fox News hype to recognize and impart these crucial lessons to their students, who, after all, will be our future lawmakers, attorneys, and judges. Otherwise, the Constitution doesn’t have a prayer.

Check out our Myths & Facts page to learn more about this case.