What the ACLU of Pennsylvania did for Victims’ Rights

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lakisha Briggs, victim of Domestic Violence

While officials in the Corbett administration were busy talking about Mumia Abu-Jamal to every microphone they could find, the ACLU of Pennsylvania spent the last two weeks of the legislative session working quietly with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence to pass a bill that will help keep victims of crime in their homes.

The passage of House Bill 1796 was one of the glowing civil liberties achievements of the 2013-14 legislative session at the General Assembly. The new law prohibits municipalities from punishing victims of crime for calling for emergency services. It was motivated by our litigation against the borough of Norristown, in Montgomery County, in which our client, Lakisha Briggs, was threatened with eviction under the borough’s “nuisance property” ordinance. Lakisha was tormented on multiple occasions by her ex-boyfriend. After emergency services were called to her home a third time, an incident that included her ex stabbing her in the neck with a shard of glass, the borough employed the ordinance to begin eviction proceedings against Lakisha and her family.

We argued in our lawsuit that the people have a First Amendment right to call upon their government for help.

Even with that backdrop, the passage of this bill almost didn’t happen.

After we filed our litigation, Representative Todd Stephens, a Republican from Montgomery County who is also a former assistant district attorney, introduced HB 1796. Rep. Stephens convened key stakeholders, including PCADV, ACLU-PA, housing advocates, and the associations that represent municipalities, to hammer out language that everyone could agree to and that achieved what we wanted. That agreed-to language passed the state House unanimously.

When the bill arrived in the state Senate, however, it was nearly derailed by unrelated amendments that were sought by the Pennsylvania Retailers Association, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the National Rifle Association. (More about that drama here.)

On the Senate’s second-to-last day of session, HB 1796 was saved from those unwanted amendments when Senator Vincent Hughes, a Democrat from Philadelphia, successfully used a procedural motion called “revert to the prior printer’s number.” In English, this means the bill goes back to a previous form. In this case, Senator Hughes wanted to go back to the version of the bill that passed the House. That motion passed, 26-22, with six Republicans joining 20 Democrats in voting for the motion.

That wasn’t the end of the drama, though. When the Senate calendar was released the next day, the chamber’s final day of session for the year, the bill was marked “over,” meaning it would not get a vote and would not pass this session, forcing us to go back to the beginning of the process next year. While allies like the Women’s Law Project and others got the word out to grassroots supporters around the state, lobbyists from PCADV, especially, and ACLU-PA worked the halls of the capitol to convince Senate Republicans that this was a good vote to hold and that this bill was important.

Ultimately, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi called up the bill for a final vote. And, to his credit, Senator John Eichelberger, who introduced one of the unrelated amendments sought by the restaurants and the retailers, spoke in favor of the bill on the Senate floor. It passed unanimously.

Governor Corbett signed the bill yesterday, so he literally lifted a finger to help.
This was truly a bipartisan, bicameral, multi-organization effort. The real credit goes to everyone I’ve named above- Representative Stephens, Senator Hughes, Senator Pileggi, the 26 senators who voted for Hughes’ motion. And the most credit goes to our friends at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who struggled for this bill until the very last day and who wouldn’t let it pass with unwanted amendments.

Now people who are victims of crime, like Lakisha Briggs, know that they can call for help when they need it. They don’t have to choose between emergency service from their government or keeping their homes.

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Andy Hoover Andy Hoover is responsible for the ACLU-PA’s lobbying efforts at the state level in Harrisburg and at the federal level in Washington, D.C. From 2004 to 2008, he was a community organizer for ACLU-PA and is an experienced advocate, cutting his teeth in the anti-death penalty movement during the Ridge-Schweiker administration. Andy also serves on the boards of directors of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and The Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania.

It’s Free Speech Week! So how did Pennsylvania celebrate?

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(13th and Locust, Philadelphia, PA. October 21, 2014, credit: Ben Bowens)

(13th and Locust, Philadelphia, PA. October 21, 2014, credit: Ben Bowens)

Free Speech Week is October 20-26. Here in the commonwealth, Governor Tom Corbett celebrated by signing a bill that allows courts to censor speech before it happens.

Wait, huh? What?

On Tuesday, Corbett signed the so-called “Revictimization Relief Act,” or what I’ve taken to calling the Free Speech Decimation Act. Perhaps it would be better to title it the Fund the Lawyers Act.

Senate Bill 508 allows a district attorney or the Attorney General or the victim of a “personal injury” crime to seek an order from a civil court to block the “conduct” of a person with a criminal conviction if the conduct “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” That phrase is defined as “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”

If you know what that is, please drop us a line.

This new law is riddled with free speech problems. It is government censorship of speech that powerful people do not want to hear. Any person with a criminal conviction, whether he is currently incarcerated or was released years or decades earlier, would have his ability to speak publicly about his experience, the criminal justice system, or any unknown thing effectively chilled. Why speak up when there is a chance you’ll be hauled into civil court?

On numerous occasions, people with criminal convictions have spoken at press conferences and have testified at hearings at the state capitol. This new law chills that type of advocacy. If this law had been in effect a few years ago, would we know the story of Stacey Torrance, who is serving life-without-parole? Stacey was 14 when he participated in a robbery that ended in murder. The victim was killed 24 hours after Stacey left the scene of the robbery.

Would we know the story of Edwin Desamour, who at 16 faced the death penalty, was ultimately convicted of third-degree homicide, and served eight and a half years in prison? After his release, Edwin helped found Men in Motion in the Community, or MIMIC, to work with at-risk boys in Philadelphia.

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What happens to the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s publication Graterfriends? The Prison Society offers inmates an outlet to write about their personal experiences and about public policy issues.

All of this valuable speech is potentially chilled by this new law.

The General Assembly passed this bill in record time after Mumia Abu-Jamal gave a recorded speech to 20 graduates of Goddard College in Vermont. In the speech, Abu-Jamal made no mention of the crime for which he was convicted, the shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, and only briefly alludes to being on death row. You can read or listen to the speech here.

A reporter asked me the other day if it is difficult advocating for the rights of people who are deeply disliked. I replied that we wouldn’t need the First Amendment if we only allowed popular speech. The right to free speech exists to ensure that even unpopular ideas or unpopular people are heard.

The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech to counter it, not government censorship. We look forward to discussing the First Amendment with the commonwealth in a court of law.

You’re on The Grid. And so is your government.

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Map

State laws on privacy – June 2014 (click to enlarge)

When talk around here turns toward privacy in our use of electronic technologies and everyday activities, my mind goes straight to the Jason Bourne movie franchise and its characters’ references to popping on and off “the grid.” Although the Bourne series is fiction, it’s not a stretch to think of today’s electronic technologies as “the grid,” even for those of us who aren’t trained CIA assassins. And we shouldn’t have to escape to a beachside hut in India to escape the government’s probing eyes.

At the end of June, the ACLU released an interactive map that illustrates how well states are keeping up with protecting the people’s privacy in an age of evolving technologies. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania isn’t.

The ACLU examined state law on four key topics- government access to mobile location data, electronic communication data, and license plate reader data, and government use of drones. Utah, Tennessee, and Maine protect their residents’ privacy in at least three of those areas. Seven more states protect privacy in at least two of those issue areas. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has no protections in state law on any of these topics.

Here in the commonwealth, we’ve been too busy fighting off new legislative initiatives for the government to expand its collection of your personal data to think much about making the law better. In the 2013-14 session, we’ve dealt with a bill to create a government-run database of prescription medication records and another bill to collect DNA from people who have been merely arrested but not convicted of a crime.

The former has been tied up in part due to privacy concerns- among Democrats and Republicans- over the bill’s loose standard for prosecutors to access the database. The latter should be dead after Public Source published findings last month that 30,000 arrestees in Pennsylvania in 2013 were never fingerprinted, leading one to reasonably wonder how police are going to add DNA collection to their duties.

And alarm bells went off throughout the capitol (figuratively) in April when the state Supreme Court ruled that police officers no longer need a search warrant issued by a court to search a stopped vehicle. While the court maintained the constitutionally-sound “probable cause” standard, it removed the neutral third party- the judge- to determine that the officer actually reached the standard. That will force Pennsylvanians who are unfairly searched to fight it after the fact. Numerous state legislators and staff approached me after that ruling to say, in so many words, “WTF?”

All is not lost, though. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has teamed up with legislators from both parties to stop or at least neutralize awful legislation that would undermine privacy over the last two legislative sessions. The ground is fertile to push back with initiatives that enhance privacy in Pennsylvania and that keep the government from expanding its reach into our business.

Unless you’ve found a way to live electronic-free (and you’re reading this blog so I assume you haven’t), you’re on the grid. You shouldn’t have to choose between modern conveniences and your right to be free from government snooping. State lawmakers need to hear that message, too.

Andy HooverAndy Hoover is the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. That means he lobbies, even though his colleagues often ask him, “How can you stand it?” He goes onto the grid on Twitter, @freedomsfriend.

On the Right Side of History: October 1, 1996

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Rainbow Flag

A rainbow flag is raised outside of city hall in Philadelphia. (credit: Ben Bowens)

At the suggestion of a colleague, I pulled up the General Assembly’s archives to look at the votes and the journals from the legislature’s passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

After the events of the past week, it was quite a read. The state Senate passed DOMA on October 1, 1996, by a vote of 43-5. The five no votes are all names that are familiar to Pennsylvania politicos- Democrats Vincent Hughes, who is now the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Vincent Fumo, who retired several years ago after legal troubles; Hardy Williams, who passed in 2010 and whose son, Anthony, now serves in the Senate; Allyson Schwartz, who serves in Congress and ran for governor this year; and Republican Dave Heckler, who later became a judge and is now the district attorney of Bucks County.

Reading the floor debate, which is available here, is fascinating. Here are some choice quotes:

“Our country was founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all. It is our responsibility, in fact our obligation, as elected officials to assure a society that prohibits discrimination against any class of people. It is wrong to express words of tolerance and to condemn bigotry only when it is easy and safe, only when it is in the abstract. Well, today we are faced with a choice to condemn discrimination, to end a minority group’s isolation, and to build understanding. It should not be so hard. And I ask each of my colleagues not to waste this opportunity and instead to stand up for understanding, to stand up for acceptance, to stand up for fairness, and to vote against…this legislation.”
— Senator Allyson Schwartz

 

“I am of the belief that government has no place in the bedroom, and I do not know why we have to rush to judgment on this issue right now. I recognize it as an inflammatory issue, it is one that drives some people crazy, but my plea is that these people are human beings, too, and have the right to their beliefs and the exercise of their beliefs the same as the majority of people do. They present no threat to society. In fact, they complement society and assist society by being honest, law-abiding individuals.

 

“…I do not kid myself. I know the vote today will probably be overwhelming, the same way the vote in a southern legislature years ago would have been overwhelming in discriminating against black minorities. That does not make the vote right. It is still wrong. It is no business of ours to interfere in the lives of others, in the most private and intimate way, and it is shameful that we are doing this(.)”
–Senator Vincent Fumo

Six days later, on October 7, the House passed the bill with just 13 members voting no. We’ll have a follow up post to recognize those representatives.

On October 16, Governor Ridge signed the bill and it became Act 124 of 1996.

And on May 20, 2014, Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act was swept into the ash heap of history.

On “My Grandfather’s ACLU”

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Court Room Jury Chairs

One of the more entertaining aspects of my job as legislative director, aka lobbyist, for the ACLU of Pennsylvania is that I attract all manner of fascinating conversations on a typical day at the state capitol. On a given day, the topics can range from prisons and who’s lying about them to prescription drug monitoring and its potential to be used for political payback to shooting down drones over private property. There is never a dull moment.

Recently, I had a conversation with a law enforcement official I consider a friend, or at least a friendly work acquaintance. (He shall remain safely anonymous.) This person is a civil libertarian in most ways- voting rights, reproductive rights, LGBT equality- but doesn’t get the civil liberties argument for criminal justice. He told me that “my grandfather’s ACLU” would be all about voter ID, reproductive rights, etc. but not criminal justice.

Never mind that the ACLU was involved in the appeals of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s (https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/aclu-history-scottsboro-boys), which led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions and which national ACLU describes as “a milestone in the emergence of a national civil rights movement.”

National ACLU notes:

From its very beginnings, the ACLU was at the forefront of the movement to establish constitutional standards in the criminal justice system and to safeguard against abuses of power by those in law enforcement.

To give you a little peek behind the curtain, “what’s the civil liberties issue” is a familiar mantra for our staff. When we consider taking up an issue, either we ask ourselves that question or one of our board members asks. So why is criminal justice a civil liberties issue? It’s hard to list every reason, but here are a few:

Because the constitution has clear protections and boundaries for the criminal justice system, including a right to an attorney, a right to due process of law, the right to be considered “innocent until proven guilty,” the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to equal protection under the law.

Because “stop-and-frisk” policies by police are disproportionately used against innocent black people, particularly young men. Even if they were not, the police have no right to search someone without cause.

Because stationing police officers in schools inevitably leads to more children funneled into the criminal justice system, particularly young people of color and young people with disabilities.

Because black people in Pennsylvania are five times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana offenses while survey data shows that usage is virtually the same across all races.

Because black people are far more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses, despite using and selling drugs at essentially the same rate as whites.

Because Pennsylvania has consistently had one of the highest rates of minorities sentenced to death in the country. As of last year, 61 percent of inmates on death row in the commonwealth were people of color, mostly black men. At its peak in the last decade, that number rose as high as 70 percent. Even without racial disparities, execution at the government’s hand is the ultimate deprivation of liberty.

Because collecting DNA from people who have not been convicted of a crime without a search warrant violates the fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. With arrest rates disproportionately impacting minorities, this expansion of DNA collection will inevitably lead to a new pool of permanent, mostly minority suspects. (Note: As of this writing, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has successfully stopped this legislation. Expect it to be considered in the state House this spring.)

I could go on, but this is already too long for a typical blog post. You get the point. For a wide array of reasons, criminal justice is a civil liberties issue. If your grandfather was a member of the ACLU, I hope that he would appreciate our stance for liberty, wherever it needs defended.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.