activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Tag: american civil liberties union

settlement reached in lawsuit seeking to stop warrantless searches of arrestees’ cell phones

In March 2013, activist Bob Offer-Westort sued San Francisco to stop warrantless searches of arrestees’ cell phones. The parties put the case on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 25, 2014, in which the court held that searching an arrestee’s cell phone generally requires a warrant. Yesterday Offer-Westort dismissed his case in exchange for the San Francisco Police Department’s agreement to stop conducting warrantless searches of arrestees’ cell phones.

Even after the Supreme Court ruling, however, law enforcement agencies can still demand that cellphone carriers provide subscriber information, including text messages and caller locations. In 2012, cellphone carriers reported that they responded to 1.3 million such demands from law enforcement agencies in 2011. They turned over records thousands of times per day in response to police emergencies, court orders, law enforcement subpoenas, and other requests. According to a New York Times article dated July 9, 2012:

Under federal law, the carriers said they generally required a search warrant, a court order or a formal subpoena to release information about a subscriber. But in cases that law enforcement officials deem an emergency, a less formal request is often enough.

food not bombs considers legal action against city of columbia, south carolina ordinance

Food Not Bombs (FNB) has been serving food every Sunday for 12 years in Finlay Park in the city of Columbia, South Carolina. Yet tomorrow the city will apparently begin strictly enforcing an anti-homeless ordinance, which requires groups of 25 or more to obtain a permit and pay $120 before they can congregate in a public park. According to yesterday’s ThinkProgress article, stopping groups like FNB may be the point of enforcing the ordinance:

Since the Columbia City Council approved its exile plan in August, the city has been trying to herd its homeless people to a shelter on the outskirts of town and keep them away from downtown. … Columbia is part of an unfortunate trend of cities that have decided to crack down on charity groups that feed the homeless. Others that have passed or are considering ordinances include RaleighSt. LouisHarrisburg, and Los Angeles.

The local FNB group is considering legal action to prevent enforcement of the ordinance. In June, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of FNB against the city of Flagstaff, Arizona. On October 4, a judge ruled that a 1988 anti-begging law was unconstitutional, and prohibited Flagstaff from “interfering with, targeting, citing, arresting, or prosecuting any person on the basis of their act(s) of peaceful begging in public areas.”

minneapolis says it will stop charging people with trespassing for engaging in first amendment protected activities

The authoritarian impulse of governments to control speech is still alive in the world.

On June 9, 2011, Melissa Hill was detained and issued a trespass notice after she wrote with chalk on a public sidewalk outside the Federal Building in Minneapolis. Hill filed a lawsuit asserting violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Today’s press release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota gives a more detailed explanation of the incident:

In 2011 Hill was in the process of re-chalking “Don’t Enlist, Resist” when she was handcuffed, detained, searched and questioned by security guards, [Federal Protective Service] Agents and a Minneapolis Police Department officer. The MPD issued Hill a trespass notice that prohibited her from entering the property of the Federal Building for a period of one year.

Hill recently entered into a settlement agreement resolving her lawsuit. According to the agreement, the U.S., DECO (a privately-held company providing protective security services), and the City of Minneapolis will pay a total amount of $5,000 to the ACLU of Minnesota for attorneys’ fees and costs. In February 2012, Hill settled a separate lawsuit, arising from her arrest in October 2011, for $15,000 and changes to Hennepin County’s trespassing policy.

food not bombs wins first amendment lawsuit against city of flagstaff, arizona

Yesterday U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake overturned an Arizona state law that criminalized being “present in a public place to beg.” The Flagstaff Police Department and City Attorney had aggressively enforced the law, negatively impacting Food Not Bombs (FNB). For example, several FNB members had apparently been arrested for requesting donations from passersby. According to yesterday’s press release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),

In 2008, the City of Flagstaff adopted a policy in cooperation with local businesses—called “Operation 40”—to remove panhandlers from downtown areas by jailing them early in the day. Flagstaff utilized the now-void statute, which equated panhandling with loitering, to justify the arrests. Between June 2012 and May 2013, 135 arrests were made by the Flagstaff Police Department under the law.

On June 25, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the City of Flagstaff on behalf of FNB and three people who had been arrested, threatened with arrest, or who feared being arrested for “loitering to beg.” Judge Wake ruled yesterday afternoon that the 1988 state law at issue was unconstitutional. He also prohibited Flagstaff from “interfering with, targeting, citing, arresting, or prosecuting any person on the basis of their act(s) of peaceful begging in public areas.”

after ten years, federal communications commission votes to rein in prison phone rates

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to reduce interstate phone call costs for prisoners and their families. Many civil rights groups, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Human Rights Defense Center, have been pushing the FCC to lower these exorbitant rates. The FCC has been weighing the issue for approximately 10 years.

On December 26, the FCC proposed new rules to reduce the cost of interstate phone calls from inmates. The deadline for initial comments was March 25. According to the ACLU’s press release,

Previously an unregulated part of the phone industry, prison calling costs have reached as high as $20 for a 15-minute call in some states. Beginning immediately, the FCC will cap rates at 25 cents per minute [for collect calls], meaning that the cost of a 15 minute long distance call will not exceed $3.75. The FCC also banned extra fees to connect a call or use a calling card.

More than 2 million families communicate with incarcerated family members via long-distance phone calls. The proposal approved Friday caps rates at 21 cents per minute for debit and prepaid calls. It also prohibits companies from penalizing customers with hearing loss or limitation for using relay services.

food not bombs files first amendment lawsuit against city of flagstaff, arizona

An Arizona state law makes it a crime to be “present in a public place to beg.” The Flagstaff Police Department and City Attorney have aggressively enforced this law. Such enforcement negatively impacts Food Not Bombs (FNB), according to a lawsuit the organization filed yesterday:

FNB members have become hesitant to participate in organizational activities and services due to the regular presence of police officers on the periphery of the feeding site and … the awareness that Flagstaff is arresting and prosecuting persons for asking for donations for food. FNB members who have experienced threats about and arrests for begging are particularly reluctant to enter into, and participate in activities in, areas with a Flagstaff Police department presence. As a result, FNB has experienced a loss of membership and a reduction in its capacity to serve the poor and hungry in Flagstaff.

Several FNB members have apparently been arrested for requesting donations from passersby. The American Civil Liberties Union represents FNB in the lawsuit, in addition to three people who have been arrested, threatened with arrest, or who fear being arrested for “loitering to beg.”

lawsuit seeks to stop warrantless searches of arrestees’ cell phones

On January 27, 2012, Bob Offer-Westort pitched a tent in Jane Warner Plaza in San Francisco, put a sleeping bag inside, and sat at the entrance until two police officers asked him to leave. He refused and was arrested. The arrest was a means to an end, effectively showing that a proposed ordinance targeting homeless people was duplicative of existing law.

One of the officers who arrested Offer-Westort searched his cell phone without a warrant, reading his text messages. The police didn’t return Offer-Westort’s phone for three or four months, during which time he went without a phone. (Thankfully he had it back in time to participate in the successful campaign against the proposed sit/lie law in Berkeley.)

In People v. Diaz (2011), the California Supreme Court decided that a warrantless search of an arrestee’s cell phone did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The California Constitution, however, provides greater privacy protections than the U.S. Constitution; so this week, Offer-Westort and the ACLU sued San Francisco to stop warrantless searches of arrestees’ cell phones.

first of several lawsuits filed against philadelphia police for arresting people who observe or record them

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed the first of several lawsuits yesterday regarding Philadelphia police officers’ pattern of fabricating criminal offenses to arrest people for recording their conduct. Yesterday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Philadelphia resident, Christopher Montgomery, who an officer arrested for using his cellphone to videotape police. The ACLU press release describes Montgomery’s arrest:

On the evening of January 23, 2011, a crowd of young people were involved in a verbal altercation in Center City. As police began arresting some of those involved, Montgomery, a Temple student and bystander, began recording audio and video with his iPhone. … An officer at the scene, David Killingsworth, approached Montgomery, shouted at him to stop recording, and grabbed the hand he was using to hold his iPhone. Killingsworth then arrested Montgomery, took his phone, and drove him to a local police district.

Montgomery was cited for disorderly conduct. When he subsequently received his phone back, his video of the incident had been erased. Yet he was ultimately found not guilty of the trumped-up charge. According to yesterday’s complaint,

Documenting police officers’ behavior in public by way of audio and video recording is expressive activity protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is not and, under our Constitution, could not be a crime.

san francisco district attorney’s office agrees to withdraw twitter subpoenas

Last month, the San Francisco District Attorney’s office issued subpoenas to Twitter for tweets, photos, and other information related to the accounts of two activists, Lauren Smith and Robert Donohoe. The District Attorney’s office previously charged Smith and Donohoe with offenses stemming from a Columbus Day demonstration last year. After the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a brief in support of the activists’ motion to quash the subpoenas, the District Attorney’s office agreed to withdraw them.

Unfortunately, authorities are increasingly attempting to obtain account information from Twitter. In the case of Malcolm Harris, for example, prosecutors obtained damning tweets related to an Occupy march on the Brooklyn Bridge in October 2011. According to yesterday’s article by ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye,

In a disturbing trend that can have a chilling effect on free speech, law enforcement agencies around the country are seeking wide-ranging information about the social networking activity of political activists. … A district attorney’s decision to prosecute is not an invitation for the government to engage in intrusive fishing expeditions into a criminal defendant’s beliefs and interests, let alone the beliefs and interests of third parties… By issuing the subpoenas, the San Francisco DA sent an intimidating message to protesters everywhere.

boston police department spied on several antiwar groups for years

Through an August 2011 lawsuit against the Boston Police Department (BPD), the National Lawyers Guild and American Civil Liberties Union obtained documents showing that officers conducted surveillance on antiwar groups between 2007 and 2010. Not that protesters named in the reports are surprised. According to today’s news release,

The documents reveal that officers assigned to the BPD’s regional domestic spying center, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), file so-called “intelligence reports” mischaracterizing peaceful groups such as Veterans for Peace, United for Justice with Peace and CodePink as “extremists,” and peaceful protests as domestic “homeland security” threats and civil disturbances.

Congress created fusion centers such as the BRIC after September 11, 2001, to facilitate communication between the FBI, CIA, and other government agencies. Yet earlier this month, a two-year bipartisan investigation by a U.S. Senate subcommittee announced that instead of uncovering terrorist threats, officials recorded constitutionally protected activities. Senator Tom Coburn, the subcommittee’s ranking member who initiated the investigation, said fusion centers “have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties.”