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ACLU News - The Newspaper of the ACLU of Northern California, November/December 97

News Briefs

Wilson Vetoes Bill Restoring Media Interviews with Inmates

On October 12, Governor Wilson vetoed a bill which would have lifted the California Department of Corrections (CDC) ban on face-to-face interviews with individual prisoners. SB 434 (Kopp, I-San Francisco), passed with a majority vote in the both houses of the state and was sent to the Governor on September 9.

"We are outraged by his veto," stated Francisco Lobaco, Legislative Director of the ACLU-NC. "The governor had the opportunity to shed light on our prisons and to uphold the basic right of the public to know what goes on behind prison walls. Instead, he has opted to maintain the veil of secrecy that enshrouds our prisons - an indefensible policy that is more reminiscent of a totalitarian system than our democratic society."

Sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists and supported by the ACLU, the bill gained momentum at a September 10 press conference called by Senator Quentin Kopp bringing attention to two inmates who were punished because they allegedly alerted the media that prisoners, as part of their duties in a work program, were required to remove "Made in Honduras" labels from T-shirts, manufactured for a private company, and replace them with "Made in USA labels." One inmate was removed from his cell and sent to Administration Segregation better known as the "hole, and the other was transferred to another prison.

A CDC document justified the punishment stating the inmates were involved in "...a conspiracy to mastermind a sabotage effort to discredit a joint venture project at this institution."

The bill stems from the April, 1996 elimination of face-to-face interviews with specified prisoners and confidential mail between media and all prisoners. The CDC claimed the regulations were necessary to maintain security and to prevent criminals from becoming "celebrities."

Lobaco concluded, "We will continue our efforts to overturn the Department of Corrections regulations imposing a virtual ban on the ability of the media to interview prisoners. These regulations remain contrary to First Amendment principles and inconsistent with our free society."

ACLU Halts to Drug-Sniffing Dogs in School

Responding to the ACLU-NC's challenge to the use of drug-sniffing dogs to randomly search students and teachers, the Galt Unified School District Board of Trustees unanimously voted to end the dog searches on May 14.

"This case is important because forcing students to submit to dog sniff searches sends the message that the constitutional rights of students don't count," said ACLU cooperating attorney John Heller of Chapman, Popik & White. "At an age when high school students are learning about their rights and about their Constitution, bringing dogs on campus sends the wrong message. This is bad education."

Charging that the use of the dogs violated the students' constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, the ACLU-NC filed the suit against the Galt Unified School District on March 19 after Vice-Principal Donna Gill conducted a random search for drugs and weapons in a criminal justice class taught by teacher Michael Millet. When senior Jacob Reed refused to let the dogs sniff his belongings, he was taken to Principal Craig Murray's office where he was searched. Nothing was found. Meanwhile, the dog-sniff inspection continued in the classroom and the dog alerted officials to a jacket belonging to junior Chris Sulamo. SiSulamo was then taken out and searched, but, again school officials found that he had not contraband.

Galt Unified School District had contracted with Interquest Group Inc. to conduct these random dog-sniff inspections of lockers, classrooms, and vehicles for the purposes of detecting drugs, weapons, and other contraband on the students. Nearly 40 school districts throughout the Central Valley continue to make use of the dogs to search through students' belongings. This lawsuit is the first to challenge the constitutionality of policies by which school districts hire private companies to conduct random searches of students' belongings.

"Any use of the dogs in this manner is unconstitutional," Heller said. "No one is arguing that there isn't a drug problem, but you can't respond to the drug problem by trampling on the rights of students. Students don't automatically give up their rights once they pass through the school doors."

The plaintiffs in the suit were students Jacob Reed, Chris Sulamo, and their teacher Michael Millet.

In addition to Heller, plaintiffs were represented by ACLU-NC Managing Attorney Alan Schlosser, and cooperating attorneys Mark White and Robert Lash, also of Chapman, Popik & White.

Hmong Family Sues Yuba County Sheriff's Department for Harassment

After suffering repeated harassment at the hands of the Yuba County Sheriff's Department, on August 1, the Her family -- members of the Hmong community -- filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Sacramento against Yuba County and five officers of the sheriffs' department asking for damages and a jury trial. The family is represented by ACLU-NC staff attorney Kelli Evans and cooperating attorney Mark Merin of Dickstein & Merin.

The suit, Her v. Yuba County, charges that law enforcement officers repeatedly violated the Hers' rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments while responding to a neighbor's claim that the Hers' three-year-old toddler allegedly fired a b.b gun. From August to September 1996, officers subjected the Her family to unlawful searches, at one point detaining them - including seven small children - at the police station all day without a warrant. Additionally, officers interrogated the Hers' ten-year-old daughter in a police vehicle without her parents' consent until she burst into tears. They also seized the Hers' children from their elementary school classes without their parent's knowledge or consent. No b.b. gun was ever found.

The family's initial claim, filed in February 1997, was denied by the Yuba County Board of Supervisors. Since filing the federal suit, the Her family has received telephone threats from someone claiming to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

"The Hers, like all other families in America, have a right to be secure in their home and school and free from unreasonable searches and seizures," said Evans. "The Yuba County Sheriff's Department's treatment of the Hers was not only unreasonable, it was outrageous and cannot go unchallenged. The Fourth Amendment exists in order to prohibit the type of flagrant abuse of authority at issue in this case." 

American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California
1663 Mission Street, Suite 460, San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 621-2493

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