Friday, May 14, 2010

Potty Mouths, Steer Clear of Pennsylvania

Cross posted at Blog of Rights

If you have a potty mouth, stay away from the Keystone State. It turns out that police in Pennsylvania have delicate sensibilities. A recent ACLU of Pennsylvania Right to Know Law request revealed that in a one-year period, the Pennsylvania State Police issued over 770 disorderly conduct citations for profanity or profane gestures. That's two citations a day. Illegal citations, I should emphasize, as the courts have made it very clear that profanity, unlike obscenity, is constitutionally protected speech.

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed two lawsuits against the Pennsylvania State Police and the Mahanoy City Police of Schuylkill County for issuing disorderly conduct citations to two Pennsylvania residents for using profanity. Our lawsuits argue that profanity and profane gestures are constitutionally protected speech.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that there is a huge difference between the legal definition of obscenity, which is illegal, and profanity, which is not. In legal terms, the pornography in your local porn store doesn't even qualify as obscene, much less dropping the F-bomb in front of an officer of the law. Only very graphic or extremely violent sexual acts intended to arouse a sexual response qualify as obscenity. It's understandable that average citizens might not know the difference, but people whose job it is to defend the law should know what the law actually means.

While many people find this case understandably humorous, the consequences of these citations are not so funny. In one case (PDF), our client called a passing motorcyclist she knew an "asshole" after he deliberately swerved as if to hit her and shouted an insult at her. That same day, she reported the incident to the state police, who proceeded to mail her a disorderly conduct citation for swearing. The citation noted that she could face as much as 90 days in jail and a fine up to $300. She was eventually found not guilty — after hiring a lawyer to defend her. In the months leading up to her hearing, our client, a mother of three young children, constantly worried that she might be separated from her family because of the citation.

Unfortunately, the zeal for citing folks for profanity isn't limited to the state police. In the past few years, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has successfully defended about a dozen individuals against similar charges, including most recently a Scranton woman, Dawn Herb, who swore at her clogged toilet in her home and a Pittsburgh man, David Hackbart, who flipped off a police officer in a dispute over a parking space.

Is it poor manners to swear like a sailor? Definitely. Is it a crime? Definitely not.

Sara in Philly

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

PA Law Enforcement Says, "No, Gracias," to AZ-style law in PA

Here's a blog post that just about writes itself. We know that passing House Bill 2479, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe's Arizona-style immigration bill, would be terrible for law enforcement in Pennsylvania. But I've been worried that law enforcement would not speak up in opposition.

Well, there's no need to worry. The media has been querying police and prosecutors on their feelings on the legislation, and the consensus has been overwhelmingly against it. Some choice cuts.

"I think the way we're doing it right now is working for us. Quite frankly, we have our hands full doing what we do now...Walking up to someone from the way they look or their speech or manner of dress, I think it's wrong. I think it's a slippery slope, and I think it's dangerous." --Chief Leo McCarthy, Moon Township (Allegheny County) Police Department, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, May 8

"At this point, Pennsylvania doesn't need any additional legislation to address the problem because it's just not at that level here in Pennsylvania." --Mary Beth Buchanan, former U.S. Attorney, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

"(A)nother unfunded mandate for local government, for local law enforcement." --Stephen A. Zappalla, Jr., Allegheny County District Attorney, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

"Some of the people who come up with these ideas, I almost think I know what they're trying to say. It's inexcusable. To me, it's, 'Anybody who's not white might be an illegal immigrant.' That's what I'm getting out of that. It's offensive. People who never come into contact with any kind of immigrants make a lot of assumptions on archaic stigmas, and it's frustrating." --Chief Keith Sadler, Lancaster Police Department, The Intelligencer Journal, May 5

"I don't know that the system is broken right now. There is a process in place through which we can verify a person's status." --Chief Mark Pugliese, West Hempfield Township (Lancaster County) Police Department, The Intelligencer Journal

"There's going to have to be an immense amount of training in how to make correct determinations, and in the area of documentation, especially counterfeit. That's going to be a huge market...This commonwealth has cut back funding for police training immensely. Whose dime is this going to be on? If it fell upon me, I need this budget for other things." --Chief William L. Harvey, Ephrata Borough (Lancaster County) Police Department, Intelligencer Journal

"From what I've seen, it would put a terrible burden on a district attorney and his staff - especially a smaller DA." --Shawn Wagner, District Attorney, Adams County, Hanover Evening Sun, May 9

"They might be here illegally and taking someone's job, but when you compare that with someone who has assaulted someone and left them in a vegetative state, you know where I have to put my resources." --Tom Kearney, District Attorney, York County, Hanover Evening Sun

Well said.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why James Carville was wrong about Pennsylvania

Every time I hear the quote it makes my skin crawl: Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle. Political consultant James Carville said some version of this quip while working on Bob Casey, Sr.'s gubernatorial campaign in 1986. Today I hear it from advocates, including my own colleagues, on a nearly constant basis. It's usually said by people from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and is meant as a slam on those of us from the rest of the state.

There are all kinds of threads to pull apart with this quote, starting with the idea that being "Alabama" is a slam. (Carville claims that he only meant that in central and northern PA, people are conservative and churchgoers.)

The meaning that has been projected onto this line, that Pennsylvanians not from Philly or Pittsburgh are bumpkins who take positions on issues based on visceral reactions and fears, is wrong. And it's time for civil rights advocates and civil libertarians to retire the quote.

Carville was not talking about civil liberties, but let's consider the quote from a civil liberties perspective and why it doesn't work.

Philly ain't that great. The city of Philadelphia is responsible for many civil liberties problems. Example A just occurred a few weeks ago when a 17-year-old boy was hit with a Taser by a Philadelphia police officer after the boy ran onto the field at a Phillies game. The kid did something dumb, but he was not a physical threat to anyone. Philadelphia PD is notorious for using excessive force, and this was just another example.

The city has also cost the taxpayers of this commonwealth millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of dollars because the former, long-time district attorney, Lynne Abraham, insisted on pursuing the death penalty in nearly every homicide case she presided over during her 18-year reign as DA. As a result, a majority of people on death row are from Philadelphia.

The people of Philadelphia elected and re-elected Abraham four times.

Philadelphia is also now participating in the federal government's Secure Communities program. You know, we have to "secure our communities" from those robbing, raping, thieving illegal aliens. The city police department's arrest database is linked to ICE. It sounds good in theory, but there is a horrendous track record of racial profiling and harassment when local law enforcement and ICE work together.

Civil liberties belong to all of us. Our national executive director, Anthony Romero, once said that civil liberties don't belong to only the liberal wing of the Democratic Party or the conservative wing of the Republican Party. We have numerous examples of state legislators from areas of the state outside of Philly and Pittsburgh standing up for our rights. Four of the eight senators who voted to table the constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage in March were from areas other than the southeast and southwest. Our greatest champions in opposition to the commonwealth implementing Real ID have been from the "Alabama" area of the state. The list goes on.

The quote disempowers people. When my fellow advocates throw this quip around, the message to those of us in the middle of the state is, Give up. Before becoming legislative director, I was ACLU-PA's community organizer for central PA. It was clear that supporters of the ACLU's mission in this area of the state felt frustrated and had no faith in their fellow citizens. By quoting Carville, we advocates add to that disempowerment.

Carville was wrong about Pennsylvania. We are a striped state where no political ideology dominates. As civil libertarians, we must be willing to talk about our issues wherever the people are, and talk with them in their language, and not simply huddle in the big cities.

(I also recommend this piece from Politico, which quotes numerous PA political observers on the inaccuracy of the line.)

Andy in Harrisburg

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Monday, May 10, 2010

One day at the capitol

One day in the life of a lobbyist for civil liberties. Last Tuesday, May 4.

8:30am: Coffee klatch with a few legislators and lobbyists. Hilarity ensues.

9:30am: House Judiciary Committee meeting. The committee approves House Bill 739 to add a new aggravating circumstance for capital cases. A person could face the death penalty if, along with the homicide, they also commit a sex offense and they were required at the time to register under Megan's Law. Needless to say, ACLU-PA opposes and submitted a memo (pdf) to that effect.

Only outgoing Rep. Kathy Manderino voted in opposition. I'm not worried at all about this bill becoming law.

I've left difficult committee meetings with a headache in the past, but I don't yet have a headache.

10am: Rep. Metcalfe and his merry band hold a press conference to announce the introduction of legislation, House Bill 2479, similar to the recently passed law on immigration in Arizona. Our press release goes out as the presser starts.

The reps and advocates in favor of Metcalfe's bill sounded something like this:
Blah blah blah blah illegals blah. Blah blah invasion blah blah. Crime blah blah blah.

I tweeted it, with my own commentary.

Still no headache.

11am: Definitely no headache now- Senator Leach holds his press conference on medical marijuana. Chris Goldstein of Pennsylvanians for Medical Marijuana drops science with defiance.

12pm: Work the press room on immigration. ACLU-PA gets mentions in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Pennsylvania Independent, and WITF-FM.

12:30pm: Lunch with the medical marijuana guys- Chris, Derek, and Jay. Brownies for dessert. (Just kidding.)

We ate in the capitol cafeteria, and as far as I know, no one has dropped dead.

2pm: Back to the office to catch up on my messages. I support a moratorium. On email.

3:30pm: Back to the capitol, meet up with allies working on prison reform issues.

4pm: Meet with Republican senator who is supportive of reform but not optimistic about passage this session.

4:45pm: Meet with Democratic senator who is supportive of reform.

5:15pm: Head back to the office to deal with emails on sex ed and LGBT discrimination and to send an update to my ACLU-PA colleagues.

6:20pm: Leave the office. No headache, no need for medical marijuana.

Another day in the life.

Andy in Harrisburg

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