ACLU Week in Review

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

17th annual picnic

July 13 – July 17

With the 4th of July in our rearview mirror, it’s time to look ahead to the next big event of the Summer – The 17th annual ACLU picnic in Pittsburgh! This year’s event promises to be the best yet as we take time to reflect on what an amazing year it has already been for civil liberties in Pennsylvania. Find more details about the picnic and check out some ACLU-involved stories from around the country below.

Department of Justice urged to look into SC shooting

ACLU, NAACP urge DOJ to investigate Walter Scott’s shooting death

The ACLU of South Carolina joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and over two dozen South Carolina leaders in urging the Department of Justice to open an investigation of the North Charleston Police Department to uncover any pattern or practice of racially discriminatory policing. The letter also requests that the DOJ open a criminal civil rights investigation into the shooting death of Walter Scott on April 4, 2015. read more…

KY County Clerk denies same sex-couple a marriage license

Federal judge hears arguments in ACLU same-sex marriage case

A federal judge on Monday heard arguments about a county clerk who is refusing to issue marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. The American Civil Liberties Union sued Davis on behalf of two gay couples and two straight couples who were denied marriage licenses. The couples named in the suit are April Miller and Karen Roberts, Shantel Burke and Stephen Napier, Jody Fernandez and Kevin Holloway, and L. Aaron Skaggs and Barry W. Spartman. read more…

PA inmate denied the right to marry

Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Inmate Denied Ability to Marry

The ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project filed a lawsuit today on behalf of an inmate whose attempts to get married have been thwarted by both the Fayette County Register of Wills and the State Correctional Institute (SCI) in Fayette. read more…

Blocking NSA’s dragnet program

ACLU sues to block extension of NSA dragnet program

The temporary extension of the National Security Agency’s bulk phone records collection authority by the secretive court that oversees US government spying should be revoked, since a federal court ruled the program unconstitutional, according to the more…

ACLU-PA Greater Pittsburgh Chapter 17th Annual Picnic – THURSDAY, July 23th (Rain or Shine!)


Join us to celebrate a great summer and great people. We’ll provide beverages and grilling items (hamburgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, etc.) We ask you to bring a side dish, snack, drink or dessert or, if cooking isn’t your thing, a $10 donation to help cover costs of food. (Kids five and under eat free.) Click here to RSVP and let us know that you’ll be coming and what you can bring.

Poor and Need Help? Please Pee into this Cup

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

One of our ongoing challenges at the ACLU is explaining the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, nuances of constitutional law to the public. Take government-run drug testing.


In the run up to passing the state budget, a state House committee passed legislation that would require applicants for public assistance to submit to a questionnaire for the purpose of flagging them for drug testing. Those who are flagged would then be required to take a drug test. One positive test would lead the person to a referral for drug treatment while maintaining their assistance. A second positive test would ban the person from assistance for a year.

We dealt with a similar bill with similar arguments last session that required school teachers to be drug tested. That bill passed the House but was not considered in the state Senate. This issue really is the worst combination of legislative sausage: Legislators can score cheap political points due to the ignorance of the public and the public’s hostility to poor people on assistance while making terrible law.

Here’s the most common argument for a bill like this: “Private employers drug test their employees. Why not for welfare?” Another argument we’ve heard is that there are government workers who are drug tested–police officers, highway workers, the military–so people who get public assistance should, too. I don’t expect the general public to understand the twists and turns of the Fourth Amendment. But legislators who write the law have an obligation to know better.

Let’s review the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Essentially, if you have an expectation of privacy, the government cannot search you without suspicion, i.e. probable cause, that you’ve committed a crime and without an order (a warrant) from a court of law.

To drug test someone, the government would have to secure a biological sample- like urine or blood- from the person. We feel quite strongly that a person has an expectation of privacy in her biological samples. That is not a wild-eyed, radical notion.

The arguments of supporters are not comparable to drug testing for assistance. First, a private employer is not required to follow the Fourth Amendment. (Drug testing by private employers gets into another argument about privacy in the workplace and the foolishness of the failed War on Drugs. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

Second, the government can drug test police officers and highway workers as a condition of employment only because they fall into the narrow public safety exception to the Fourth Amendment. The police and highway workers drive vehicles as part of their work, and the police are armed. Applicants for assistance and public school teachers don’t fall into that exception.

The purpose of the questionnaire in House Bill 1380 is to establish suspicion to justify the drug test, thus avoiding the Fourth Amendment problem. But states that have tried the applicant screening approach have found that so few of the people who are flagged actually test positive that it really cannot be argued that the screening even creates suspicion.

Meanwhile, the creators of one of the screening questionnaires that states are using has said that their questionnaire was intended as a therapeutic device, not to create suspicion to deny people employment or public assistance.

The legislation before the state House does a real disservice to people in poverty and to constitutional law. Our hope is that leaders in the General Assembly will resist the urge to score political points and let this one die quietly on the vine.

Learn more about HB 1380

Andy Hoover is the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. His mobile phone is decorated with an ACLU sticker that says, “Get a warrant.”

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

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania


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.