The failed- and fatal- war on drugs

If you have anything resembling a heart, you can’t help but be moved by the death of Philadelphia police officer Sgt. Timothy Simpson. Regardless of how I feel about their lobbying efforts at the state legislature and the tactics of some officers, we all recognize the tragedy that has befallen the city with five officers killed in the line of duty in the last 13 months.

And as a parent, I always well up a bit when some tragedy befalls a family. Sgt. Simpson leaves behind three kids, two in high school and one in the fifth grade.

Sgt. Simpson died last Monday, November 17, when his cruiser was hit by a fleeing suspect. This article from last week lays out the history of the suspect, William Allan Foster.

As I read this article, I couldn’t help but think of what an utter failure the war on drugs is. For more than 20 years, Mr. Foster has been in and out of prison for drug and drug-related offenses.

According to court records, Foster had been prosecuted for more than two dozen crimes in Bucks County alone. Most, officials said, were property crimes – burglaries or thefts of tools or merchandise that he could fence for heroin money.

On the fateful day when he hit Sgt. Simpson’s cruiser, Foster was fleeing apprehension after a drug buy. He had $30 worth of heroin in his vehicle.

I don’t know if anyone ever reached out to Foster to help him or if he ever made efforts to get clean. Maybe he did and failed. What’s clear, though, is that our punitive approach to drug use is nothing short of tragic. Our prisons and jails are filled beyond their breaking point, and people are dying because our political leaders fail to approach this with clarity and maturity.

Our communities can’t afford the war on drugs. Our state corrections department and county prisons can’t handle the results of the war on drugs. And we don’t want any more dead police officers, fallen by desperate users looking for that next high.

It’s time to end this failed policy.

For more information about the ACLU’s drug law reform positions, visit

Andy in Harrisburg

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Don’t believe the hype: ACLU goes to bat for Christians

If you’re sitting around the Thanksgiving table this week and some turkey says the ACLU hates Christians, tell them to stick this in their pipe and smoke it.

A church in Jefferson County maintains a small shelter for homeless people, which has been in operation for four years. Housing the least of these among us: Could there be a more Christian thing to do?

Well, the local borough didn’t like it and ordered the shelter shutdown.

So who stepped in to defend the church? The American Center for Law and Justice? Survey says, “Errr!” The Alliance Defense Fund? Not so much. The Thomas More Law Center? Thanks for playing, and we have some wonderful parting gifts for you.

Nope, nope, and nope, it was the ACLU. Our own Witold “Vic” Walczak, ACLU-PA legal director, told the New York Times

“At the core of this is that it’s difficult for the borough officials to wrap their mind around the concept that church use is more than a Sunday service,” said Witold J. Walczak, the organization’s legal director. “This entire church is set up to help the least fortunate.”

Then there’s this quote from the town’s attorney:

“I’m a small-town lawyer, and I’m not using that as an excuse, but I had not read those 2007 and 2008 federal decisions on this law,” Mr. French said. “The way I see it, it’s an abuse of federal power to override our zoning laws.” (my bold)

That’s right, folks, Mr. French believes that local ordinances should override the Constitution of the United States.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette gave the love today in an editorial:

Enter the American Civil Liberties Union, often unfairly derided as an enemy of religion. It filed a lawsuit and request for a temporary order arguing that a town cannot use its zoning regulations to prevent a church from engaging in its religious ministry. That’s a violation of the church’s rights under the Constitution and federal and state law. Further, the ACLU argued that the prohibition shouldn’t be applied in this case because the group home classification refers to a “licensed care facility” such as a nursing home.

On the eve of a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, wisdom won the day.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Net Neutrality: Because If We Don’t Know About It, We Can’t Fight It

While net neutrality may not seem as urgent a civil liberties issue as, say, torture and illegal detainment, maintaining its existence is essential to freedom of the press.

Even though newspapers have no idea where they’re going or how they’re going to manage things by the time they get there, the reality is that the future of the press is on the Internet. But big corporations want to limit equal access to content without preferential treatment by ISPs. Telecom companies.meanwhile, want to be able to sell access to those big corporations and be able to limit access to information that it may find objectionable.

Like, perhaps, stories that point out what incredible weinies they are and how they have not one iota of respect for their customers’ right to privacy?

As interested as I am on the subject, I wasn’t aware (until Andy Hoover pointed it out to me) of the fact that the ACLU has taken a position on net neutrality. Its position paper, No Competition: How Monopoly Control of the Broadband Internet Threatens Free Speech, says:

…the Internet is without doubt the most vital and active such forum around today – a place where citizens can publish their views to be seen by a few close friends, or spread around the world; where citizens can engage with others on thousands of bulletin boards and chat rooms on nearly any topic, create new communities of interest, or communicate anonymously about difficult topics. It is one of our top entertainment mediums. It is the nation’s most comprehensive, flexible, and popular reference work. It is the closest thing ever invented to a true “free market” of ideas.

That is why the American Civil Liberties Union has a keen interest in the continued openness and vitality of the Internet as a medium for free expression.

The paper goes on to give a nifty little analogy of how free expression is threatened by control of access and how a net neutrality law would protect it:

…providers can “slow or block access to certain sites on the Internet, such as those without financial arrangements with the cable company’s ISP, or those with content considered objectionable for political or competitive reasons,” even while they “speed transmission to an affiliated site (or a site that has paid the operator for the privilege of special treatment).” That is like the phone company being allowed to own restaurants and then provide good service and clear signals to customers who call Domino’s and frequent busy signals, disconnects and static for those calling Pizza Hut. Outrageous? It would be entirely possible if the telephone system wasn’t regulated under the common carrier framework. At a time when many cable providers have assembled far- flung business empires on the premise that cross-promotion and other “synergies” will yield big profits, they will come under strong pressure to do the equivalent. And what can be done in the commercial context could be done just as easily to political content.

Anyway, there has been some good news that an Obama Administration may take the issue of net neutrality seriously. Last week, the Obama-Biden transition team appointed two staunch net-neutrality advocates to be in charge of its Federal Communications Commission review team.

The picks are important because, as the Wired article points out:
“The choice of the duo strongly signals an entirely different approach to the incumbent-friendly telecom policymaking that’s characterized most of the past eight-years at the FCC.”

One of the appointed is Susan Crawford, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. In a talk she gave in March, she said she believes that the Internet access is a utility. Crawford said of the right to access in her talk, “This is like water, electricity, sewage systems: Something that each and all Americans need to succeed in the modern era. We’re doing very badly, and we’re in a dismal state.”

As Wired writer Sarah Lai Stirland points out, “This is an observation sure to send shivers down the spines of telecom company executives.”

Lauri in York

Goin’ to California with an achin’ in my heart

As a straight ally who works for the ACLU, I try to keep in touch with what’s going on in the LGBT community. I regularly tune in to OutQ, Sirius Satellite Radio’s 24-7 gay channel, and of course, my gay friends give me good perspective.

The reality of what happened last week in California on Prop 8 set in for me over the last few days. Until the final results came in on Thursday, I held out hope that discrimination would be rejected. On my ride home from work on Friday, I tuned in Michelangelo Signorile, and the outrage from his listeners was clear. And it was righteous.

Other anti-LGBT measures passed in Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas, but California clearly touches a nerve. We expect California to be a leader in civil rights. The Cali Supreme Court overturned the state ban on interracial marriage 20 years before the US Supreme Court did it.

Based on the first week’s reaction, though, it appears that this could be a galvanizing moment. Protests are popping up throughout California and in other states, and a nationwide action is planned for Saturday. There’s even chatter of a march on Washington.

Matt Coles of our LGBT & AIDS Project puts things in perspective, though, giving us all an opportunity to take a deep breath:

Even in famously liberal San Francisco, we had to go through the process of trying to pass a simple domestic partnership law five times, and we lost twice. If you run up an unbroken string of victories in any battle for civil rights, that simply means you waited too long to get to work. Change that matters is never smooth or easy.

Meanwhile, the ACLU has sued, with others, saying that the initiative was passed improperly.

Finally, I found Keith Olbermann’s “special comment” last night quite moving. I know his special comment’s have fired me up in the past, but I can’t recall one nearly moving me to tears. This one did.

If you voted for this Proposition or support those who did or the sentiment they expressed, I have some questions, because, truly, I do not understand. Why does this matter to you? What is it to you? In a time of impermanence and fly-by-night relationships, these people over here want the same chance at permanence and happiness that is your option. They don’t want to deny you yours. They don’t want to take anything away from you. They want what you want—a chance to be a little less alone in the world.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Then again…

Right after posting the post below, I came across this article.

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama is unlikely to radically overhaul controversial Bush administration intelligence policies, advisers say, an approach that is almost certain to create tension within the Democratic Party.

Civil-liberties groups were among those outraged that the White House sanctioned the use of harsh intelligence techniques — which some consider torture — by the Central Intelligence Agency, and expanded domestic spy powers. These groups are demanding quick action to reverse these policies.

Mr. Obama is being advised largely by a group of intelligence professionals, including some who have supported Republicans, and centrist former officials in the Clinton administration. They say he is likely to fill key intelligence posts with pragmatists.

Apparently our constitutional rights aren’t “pragmatic”. Why don’t we just be honest and upfront and introduce legislation to repeal the Fourth Amendment?

I promise you that this will not be the last word on this subject.

Andy in Harrisburg

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A Promising Start?

“On Day One, with the stroke of a pen, you can restore America’s moral leadership in the World,” says the full-page ACLU ad (PDF). The open-letter campaign calls for President-elect Barack Obama to issue an executive order that closes Guantanamo Bay prison on Jan. 20. (Check out our new website,

While Obama said throughout his presidential run that he believes the indefinite imprisonment of the detainees “a sad chapter in American history,” and would work to close it (as did his opponent Sen. John McCain) yesterday’s news reports indicate that the new administration intends to make it a top and immediate goal.

According to a hopeful article Monday from the Associated Press:

President-elect Obama’s advisers are crafting plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and prosecute terrorism suspects in the U.S., a plan that the Bush administration said Monday was easier said than done.

Under the plan being crafted inside Obama’s camp, some prisoners would be released and others would be charged in U.S. courts, where they would receive constitutional rights and open trials. But, underscoring the difficult decisions Obama must make to fulfill his pledge of shutting down Guantanamo, the plan could require the creation of a new legal system to handle the classified information inherent in some of the most sensitive cases.

The article goes on to say:

Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor and Obama legal adviser, said discussions about plans for Guantánamo had been “theoretical” before the election but would quickly become very focused because closing the prison is a top priority.

However, before we permit too much unbridled optimism to cloud our judgment, another breaking story in the Chicago Tribune last night cautioned readers that a lot of work yet remains in closing this international disgrace.

“President-elect Obama said throughout his campaign that the legal framework at Guantanamo has failed to successfully and swiftly prosecute terrorists, and he shares the broad bipartisan belief that Guantanamo should be closed,” McDonough said in a statement.

Obama isn’t perfect. I’m still irked over his FISA vote. But this, to all the cynics out there, should give us hope that, perhaps, he means business and that the worst abuses of civil liberties over the past eight years may be rectified.

Lauri in York

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Will the new president defend the Constitution?

So the clouds have opened and all will be well since the Democrats won, right? Ha! Yeah, right. We’ve been warning our friends that civil liberties will still need defended at the local, state, and, yes, federal level after the election. Remember Bill Clinton with the Defense of Marriage Act, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the massive ballooning of the prison industrial complex, and the original proposal of the PATRIOT Act?

National is all over what needs to be done by President-elect Obama. Click here for the ACLU’s transition plan for the new president. Here’s Day One.

Day One: Stop Torture, Close Guantanamo, End Extraordinary Renditions
The next president will have a historic opportunity — on day one — to take very important steps to restore the rule of law in the interrogation and detention of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in secret prisons around the globe. Every action taken pursuant to an executive order of President Bush can be reversed by executive order of the next president.

Therefore, on the first day in office, the next president should issue an executive order directing all agencies to modify their policies and practices immediately to:

  • Cease and prohibit the use of torture and abuse, without exception, and direct the Attorney General immediately after his or her confirmation to appoint an outside special counsel to investigate and, if warranted, prosecute any violations of federal criminal laws prohibiting torture and abuse;
  • Close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and either charge and try detainees under criminal law in federal criminal courts or before military courts-martial or transfer them to countries where they will not be tortured or detained without charge;
  • Cease and prohibit the practice of extraordinary rendition, which is the transfer of persons, outside of the judicial process, to other countries, including countries that torture or abuse prisoners.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Some thoughts from last night

As you know, the ACLU is a non-partisan organization. Both Republicans and Democrats annoy us.

But something struck me last night while watching the election returns. John King of CNN made a comment that the Republicans cannot be a viable national party if the Democrats win 60-plus percent of the Latino vote.

Once again, it became clear that being anti-immigrant just doesn’t fly with the electorate. Three different races from the last two election cycles prove it. In northeast PA, Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta lost in his effort to topple incumbent Rep. Paul Kanjorski, after Barletta made a national name for himself with his unconstitutional ordinance on immigration. In the state’s attorney general race, Northampton County DA John Morganelli lost to incumbent Tom Corbett, after years of Morganelli stridently supporting anti-immigrant proposals. And, of course, two years ago, Rick Santorum had his hat handed to him by Bob Casey, despite Santorum’s claim that Casey supported “amnesty”.

Public officials from both parties can try to split hairs over what their anti-immigrant proposals mean. They claim they support immigration and oppose illegal immigration. But the fact is that Latinos see an attack on some of them as an attack on all of them. I know because my wife is Latina and we have numerous Latino friends, and they all feel the same way about what has been going down on immigration the last few years.

Before I knew about Barletta’s loss, I thought this might be more of a statewide phenomenon and that candidates might be able to get away with it depending upon their district. But Barletta’s defeat proves that may not even be true.

CNN’s King also commented, in reference to suburban Philly, that the GOP will continue to lose if the Ds win the suburbs with 60-plus percent of the electorate. When he said that, my thoughts immediately turned to LGBT issues. When we deal with state LGBT initiatives, our swing votes always come from the Philly and Pittsburgh suburbs, and to a lesser extent the suburbs of a few other cities. Being anti-gay doesn’t appear to fly either (see: Man-on-Dog Santorum).

Unfortunately, we did take some losses on LGBT rights in Arkansas, Florida, Arizona, and probably in California. These are all stinging defeats. While we know that in the long-term we continue to move closer and closer to LGBT equality, rolling back these constitutional amendments is going to be challenging and is going to require a lot of hardwork, sweat, and tears.

For a rundown on all of the state referendums on civil liberties issues, including victories on drug law reform and reproductive rights, visit national’s blog.

Andy in Harrisburg

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