There could be no more important victory for civil liberties in Connecticut than repeal of the death penalty, which the governor signed into law even before the legislative session ended Wednesday.
But there were many other successes, from legalizing medical marijuana to blocking red light cameras.
The death penalty repeal, which replaces capital punishment with a sentence of life imprisonment, is not retroactive, which means the 11 men now on Connecticut's death row will remain there. It was also amended to require a level of solitary confinement that the ACLU of Connecticut believes to be unnecessary and potentially counterproductive. (S.B. 280)
"This is a huge victory. There will be no new death penalty cases in Connecticut, no perpetuation of a system that was proven over and over again to be racially biased and prone to error," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU-CT. "The bill was not perfect but it was a historic and critical advance in civil rights in our state, the result of decades of hard work."
There were many other significant victories, as well.
Red light cameras. Year after year, the ACLU of Connecticut has led successful fights against red light cameras, which violate the right to due process and threaten privacy while enriching the private companies that own them. This year ACLU-CT organized a coalition, launched a media campaign, created a website (stopthecameras.org), brought in experts to testify before the legislature, held a rally and with the help of its members kept the pressure on legislators with a blizzard of evidence that red light cameras are dangerous and ineffective. Supporters of red light cameras failed to line up enough votes in the state House of Representatives to bring the bill to a vote before the session ended. (H.B. 5458)
Medical marijuana. With a doctor's prescription, seriously ill people in Connecticut will now have the alternative of marijuana to relieve their suffering. In supporting the bill, the ACLU of Connecticut joined a host of public interest groups, health care professionals and ordinary people who were being denied the most effective treatment for their symptoms. After lengthy debates in both houses, the legislature agreed and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he will sign the bill. (H.B. 5389)
Racial profiling. The legislature passed revisions to the Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act to enforce the collection of traffic stop data by Connecticut police departments. Most notably, the new law transfers the responsibility for collecting and reporting on the data from the underfunded African American Affairs Commission to the state Office of Policy and Management. Unfortunately, other important changes sought by the ACLU-CT were not adopted, including provisions to make the law effective immediately, to remove loopholes that could allow non-compliance and to require law enforcement officers to report perceptions of a driver's religion. The ACLU-CT will continue to monitor compliance with the law and seek changes as necessary. (S.B. 364)
Electronic harassment. After hearing testimony from the ACLU-CT and the Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association on a bill that would have made it illegal to "harass or annoy" people on the Internet, the Judiciary Committee let the measure die without a vote. The measure would not offer additional protection to people who are being criminally harassed but would create "a new and powerful way to chill a substantial amount of speech protected by the First Amendment," ACLU-CT Legal Director Sandra Staub testified. (S.B. 456)
Voting rights. The legislature passed three measures to expand access to the polls, including a bill that guarantees permanently disabled voters access to absentee ballots (S.B. 214) and another that allows election-day voter registration (H.B. 5024). A resolution to amend the state Constitution to remove all restrictions on obtaining absentee ballots moved forward, but did not receive enough votes to be placed on the November 2012 ballot. If approved by a simple majority in the legislature again next year, it will go on the ballot in November 2014. (H.J. 2) The ACLU-CT supported all three measures because they remove barriers to voting by the elderly, people with disabilities, low-income voters and students.
Campaign finance reform. Despite objections from several organizations, including the ACLU-CT and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the legislature passed a campaign finance reform bill aimed at Super PACs but written in a way that would restrict the free speech rights of issue advocacy organizations. Efforts to correct language requiring disclosure of donors who contribute to non-partisan organizations fell short, but citing the constitutional objections, Malloy's administration has indicated the possibility of a veto. (H.B. 5556)
Public indecency. This bill would have added five years to the sentence of an inmate convicted of public indecency in a correctional institution and would have required the inmate to register as a sex offender. The penalty could have added decades to the sentences of prisoners, at great public expense, and could have been applied to those with psychiatric disorders involving exhibitionism. An amended version passed in the Senate but did not come to a vote in the House. (S.B. 367)
The string of successes is encouraging, but there is no shortage of civil liberties issues to address in the next legislative session. Red light cameras and other threats to civil liberties are almost certain to be revived and several digital privacy and police accountability issues remain unaddressed.
Time ran out in the recent session on a bill that would have required law enforcement agencies to discard license plate scan data, but prospects look good for the measure to be reintroduced next year. The ACLU-CT wants to ensure that the scans are used only to enforce traffic laws and solve crimes and not for retroactive surveillance to track the movements of innocent Americans. (H.B. 5391)
Time also ran out on a bill, passed by the Senate but not taken up in the House, that would have affirmed the right of civilians to take photographs and video of police officers in the public performance of their duties. While the ACLU-CT believes the right to make such recordings is clearly established by the Constitution, the bill would have given unequivocal notice to law enforcement officers that they may not arrest photographers, confiscate their cameras, erase photos or video or otherwise harass people who are exercising their right to record. (S.B. 245)
Two more Connecticut residents died in the past six months after being Tasered, bringing the total to at least 11 deaths since 2005. With the increasing use of electronic weapons and new evidence suggesting that Tasers can cause heart attacks, the ACLU-CT will continue to push for minimum training requirements for police officers and mandatory reporting of Taser deployments.
The work will continue with the help of the many volunteers, donors and supporters of the ACLU of Connecticut. Thank you for your help. After all, liberty can't protect itself.
-- May 10, 2012