Pennsylvania Driving People with Drug Convictions into Poverty

capitol-complex-aerialYesterday, we filed a lawsuit against Governor Tom Wolf and Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation for suspending the driver’s licenses of any person convicted of a drug offense, even when that offense is unrelated to driving or the offender has a perfect traffic safety record.

Between 2011 and 2016, Pennsylvania suspended the licenses of nearly 149,000 drivers solely because of drug-related offenses, including possession of a small amount of marijuana. This law targets those who have already been sentenced and is an unfair attempt to place additional punishment on drug-offenders. 38 states have already repealed similar laws.

Losing a driver’s license is an extraordinary punishment that negatively affects virtually every aspect of a person’s life. Without the ability to drive, people can’t find and maintain employment, pursue education, keep medical appointments, or care for loved ones.

This unfair license suspension scheme particularly targets Pennsylvania’s impoverished neighborhoods, which are more likely to be policed. This discriminatory system makes it nearly impossible for former offenders to rehabilitate and traps many hard-working Pennsylvanians in an endless cycle of poverty.

The two named plaintiffs are both fathers living in Philadelphia who had their licenses suspended for possession of marijuana. Harold Russell, a disabled father with 6 children and 9 grandchildren, struggles to maintain his home cleaning business. Without a license, he can’t drive to clients’ houses and has seen his weekly income drop from $700 to $200 — if he can get any work at all. Sean Williams, 25, has a son who was born prematurely who has been in the hospital for the first eight months of his life but is due to be released soon. Sean worries that without a license he will not be able to safely transport his son to necessary doctor’s appointments or seek medical help in the case of an emergency.

The lawsuit (Case No. 2:18-cv-00115-RK) has been filed in partnership with Goldstein Mehta, LLC.

You can read the filed complaint here: 1, 2017-01-10 P Complaint


Bail Industry Under Fire in California

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The bail industry is under fire in California. Not only is Equal Justice’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of money bail moving towards conclusion in San Francisco, the legislature is gearing up again to reform the bail laws. According to a recent article in the Orange County Register, the bail industry was able to “derail” two bills last session but may not be able to hold the line in 2018. Both a working group established by California’s chief justice and Governor Jerry Brown have recently endorsed bail reform.

As Equal Justice has argued since its founding, money bail is unconstitutional and bad policy. It allows wealthy people accused of a violent felonies to buy their freedom, while saddling the California taxpayers with the cost of detaining indigent arrestees accused of minor crimes.  As Steven Greenhut, the article’s author, points out, bail bondsmen may make good reality TV stars, but the system they enforce is bad for everyone else. Let’s hope its days are numbered in California.


Victory for Kettle Falls Five

59e63d851800004a00dfae37Today, the federal court in Spokane, Washington vacated the convictions and dismissed all charges against Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, Michelle Gregg, and Rolland Gregg. The three are the surviving family members from the so-called “Kettle Falls Five” medical marijuana case. This is a major victory for all medical marijuana users in states where it’s legal.

The decision follows the Department of Justice’s filing in October of 2017 admitting that Congress has not authorized it to spend money on prosecuting defendants, such as Rhonda, Michelle and Rolland, who produce marijuana in compliance with state law.

This dismissal ends more than five years of unjustified prosecution against a family whose only ‘crime’ was treating their own medical conditions in compliance with Washington State medical marijuana laws. This is a victory not only for this family, but for all medical marijuana patients across the country.

The federal government prosecuted the so-called Kettle Falls Five family for growing marijuana, even though all family members held state-sanctioned medical authorizations in Washington State. The family was acquitted on four of the five charges and only convicted on a lesser-included charge. However, the judge sentenced the family members to prison. Equal Justice Under Law appealed that conviction.

One of the family members, Larry Harvey, died of pancreatic cancer in 2015, during the case.


Update in Michigan

IMG_1169 Michigan (Lansing)At the end of December, the Sixth Circuit granted a limited, 30-day stay in our challenge to Michigan’s discriminatory wealth-based license suspension laws.

The ruling from the appeals court is a victory for our plaintiffs: the court specifically holds that “The State has not demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits of its challenge to the district court’s ruling on procedural due process.” In other words, both the appeals court and the district court agree with what we have been saying all along: by suspending the licenses of those too poor to pay court debts, the Michigan Secretary of State violated hundreds of thousands of people’s constitutional rights.

The appeals court has remanded to the district court for the limited purpose of allowing the district court to provide further details about the injunction imposed on the state. You can read the opinion here: A8, 2017-12-28 C Stay


Best of 2017

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As 2017 comes to an end, we wanted to take this opportunity to recap some of the milestones that Equal Justice Under Law has achieved in the past few months:

 

 

*A huge victory in our Michigan lawsuit to end the state’s unjust wealth-based drivers’ license suspension laws

*Major wins in our fight to dismantle the money bail system in California and throughout the U.S.

*A settlement shutting down abusive private probation practices in Tennessee

*Helping a mother living in poverty to visit her incarcerated sons

*Success in our fight against Arkansas’ laws banishing people who cannot afford more expensive homes

*A major win in our challenge to America’s discriminatory War on Drugs

We are grateful for our accomplishments, yet there is still so much work to be done. At this moment, nearly 450,000 Americans across the country sit in jail solely because they are too poor to post bail.  Hundreds of thousands of people with safe driving records – including single mothers and those caring for the elderly – have had their driver’s licenses suspended because they cannot afford to pay minor infractions or court costs. Private probation companies continue to prey on people living in poverty, extorting thousands of dollars and putting hundreds of people in jail because of their inability to pay minor fines.

None of these accomplishments would be possible without support from people like you. Your support is critical to allowing Equal Justice Under Law to finish out 2017 strong, so that we can continue to fight for those who are experiencing the devastating effects of a criminal justice system that punishes people for being poor.

Please wrap up your year by supporting our work and helping to end inequality in our justice system.


Michigan’s Driver’s License Suspension Law Shut Down

IMG_1169 Michigan (Lansing)

Today, Equal Justice Under Law achieved a victory for people living in poverty in Michigan. A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction against the state’s wealth-based driver’s license suspension system in our class action lawsuit.

Judge Linda V. Parker recognized the constitutional failings of this law and preliminarily shut down the suspension of driver’s licenses of people who are unable to pay their traffic debt because there is “a strong likelihood that Plaintiffs will show that the law violates procedural due process.” The court’s ruling could lead to the restoration of driving privileges for over 100,000 people and prevent the state’s suspensions going forward.

By granting Plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction, Judge Parker has become the first federal judge in the nation to grant a preliminary injunction against wealth-based driver’s license suspensions. Based on Equal Justice Under Law’s research, 39 states currently have laws that suspend licenses due to inability to pay court debt. Equal Justice Under Law has a pending lawsuit in Montana, and other lawsuits are underway in Virginia, California, and Tennessee.

This is an important victory for our communities and people living in poverty. License suspensions only make it less likely that people will be able to pay their debts to the state, trapping people in a cycle of poverty. We look forward to the day when this system ends permanently.


Stopping Wealth-Based Banishment in Arkansas

Resized_20170905_171835Yesterday, Equal Justice Under Law finalized a settlement in our first-of-its kind federal lawsuit, challenging as unconstitutional the city of McCrory, Arkansas’ policy of banishing residents simply because they were too poor to afford a more expensive home.

In the fall of 2016, McCrory’s City Council passed a Trailer-Banishment Ordinance that forbade any mobile home valued at less than $7,500 to remain within the city limits. Our clients, David Watlington and Lindsey Hollaway, live in a trailer worth approximately $1,500, so the couple was ordered to leave the city. Lindsey works at the local labeling and packaging plant, but the couple only makes about $13,000 a year – well below the federal poverty time. Their only “crime” was being too poor to afford a more expensive home.

As a result of our lawsuit, McCrory repealed its Trailer-Banishment Ordinance, ended this discriminatory practice, and today, finalized a settlement with David and Lindsey. As part of the agreement, the City obtained a court order eliminating all of the fines the City had assessed against Mr. Watlington and has agreed to provide the plaintiffs with an additional monetary payment. In return, David and Lindsey will dismiss their lawsuit.

We here at Equal Justice Under Law are proud to stand up against such unconscionable discrimination.  No one should fear being chased out of their hometown simply because they’re too poor to afford a more expensive residence. McCrory, and all of our communities, should invest in residents rather than criminalize poverty.

 


Advocating for Medical Marijuana Rights

On Thursday, November 16th, Phil Telfeyan joined one of our clients Rhonda Firestack-Harvey from our Kettle Falls Five medical marijuana case and Americans for Safe Access to talk to congress on behalf of medical marijuana patients — specifically advocating for congress to extend the current restrictions against using federal funds to prosecute marijuana users with valid licenses in states where it is legal.

Equal Justice Under Law is working daily to help defend the rights of medical marijuana patients. Here are some pictures of the day on Capitol Hill.


New Filings Challenging California Money Bail

District Court Seal.svgLast night, in a motion for summary judgment in Buffin v. San Francisco (136, 2017-10-31 P Summary Judgment), Equal Justice Under Law asked the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to declare money bail in the state of California unconstitutional and end its wealth-based detention scheme that traps the poorest among us in a cycle of incarceration and poverty.

The bail industry — acting as the defense since City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Sheriff Vicky Hennessy declared that they would not defend money bail last year — also filed a motion for summary judgment. In their brief, the bail industry trivializes the harm of pretrial detention and ignores the fundamental unconstitutionality of money bail.

Recently, many California officials have spoken out forcefully against money bail:

  • In October, Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote in a court filing, “The Department of Justice has determined that it will not defend any application of the bail law that does not take into consideration a person’s ability to pay, or alternative methods of ensuring a person’s appearance at trial.”

As our case moves forward, Executive Director and lead attorney, Phil Telfeyan, is confident that our arguments will prevail and that the court will stand with these others in pushing to bring the money system in California to an end.


California’s Chief Justice Calls for End to Money Bail

Chief Justice Money Bail ReportOn Tuesday, October 24, California’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye released a report calling for massive reform to the state’s money bail system and admitting that holding suspects in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay bail is unfair to people who are poor.

Phil Telfeyan, Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law and the lead attorney in Buffin v. San Francisco (our federal class action lawsuit challenging pretrial money bail in California) said:

“I applaud Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye’s working group for recognizing the fundamentally unfair qualities of the money bail system and calling for an end to the discriminatory practice.  The current system amounts to wealth-based detention, and the working group’s recommendations are an important step in ending pretrial poverty jailing.

“I caution that, while the working group recommends ‘risk-based assessment,’ computerized risk assessment programs have the potential to discriminate against racial and ethnic minorities.  Computerized risk assessment programs can also overestimate someone’s level of ‘risk’ before they have been convicted of any crime.  It is critical that, at all stages, we ensure that each individual’s right to pretrial freedom is maximized.

“Ending money bail in California will no doubt encourage other states to follow suit; however, we still have much more work to do. The American money bail system needs to come to an end, not only in California, but in every state in the nation. No person should spend even one day in jail simply because he or she is poor. That’s why Equal Justice Under Law is fighting hard to bring this discriminatory system to an end by bringing legal challenges across the country to end this unconstitutional practice, which creates two separate systems of justice: one for the rich and one for everyone else.”

To read more about the report, see “California’s Chief Justice Wants Bail System Overhauled” in SF Gate and “California’s Chief Justice Calls for End to Cash Bail System” by Courthouse News Service

 

 


DOJ Admits It Was Not Authorized To Prosecute Family in Medical Marijuana Case

59e63d851800004a00dfae37On Monday, October 16, the United Stated Department of Justice filed a brief confirming that the family in the so-called Kettle Falls Five medical marijuana case was in strict compliance with state law. Therefore, the DOJ has also confirmed that they were not authorized to spend money on the prosecution of the defendants because, starting in December 2014, Congress denied funding for such prosecutions in states where medical marijuana is lawful.

Equal Justice Under Law represents the family.

Regarding the brief, Phil Telfeyan says: “This family grew medical marijuana for their own health needs. For over five years, the federal government wasted taxpayer money prosecuting a family that had fully complied with state laws. The feds have finally admitted that the family never should have been prosecuted in the first place, but there is no way they can get those five years of their lives back.”

“This filing,” Telfeyan continued, “is a victory for the family and lawful medical marijuana users all across the country. Our government should not use federal money to prosecute people abiding by state laws. This filing will have far-reaching effects that should help end the federal prosecution of marijuana users in states where it’s legal.”

You can read more about the Kettle Falls Five case HERE

Or read the DOJ Brief here: DOJ Brief October 16 2017


Michigan Introduces Law to End Driver Responsibility Fees Even Earlier than Initially Planned

Michigan LegislatureJust five months after Equal Justice Under Law filed our case against Michigan’s Drivers’ License Suspension laws that unfairly punish drivers who are poor, a package of bills was introduced in the state House of Representatives targeting “driver responsibility fees,” a surcharge that the Michigan Secretary of State puts on various traffic violations including driving on a suspended license. These fees can amount to several thousand dollars. The legislature already had decided to phase out the fees by 2020 but the current proposal — revisiting the issue in the first session after our court challenge — would speed that process up by two years.

Speaker of the House Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) said, “Far too many working people who received a ticket and paid their fine were hit with new impossible surcharges, often costing them their licenses, and then their jobs, and then their ability to pay off the mountain of debt.”

 Speaker Leonard is right. Driver responsibility fees are indeed devastating and can force a driver into unemployment and worse. But low-income drivers without driver responsibility fees can, and often do, face the same fate because Michigan suspends licenses for failure to pay any court cost, including tickets for simple mistakes such as making an improper turn on a red light.

“We applaud Michigan’s state legislature for taking an important step to address this discriminatory practice,” said Phil Telfeyan, Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law. “Our lawsuit on behalf of two Detroit mothers shows that suspending driver’s licenses for inability to pay fines unfairly target people who are poor and reduce the likelihood of people paying back their debts to the state — without licenses, people can’t drive to work; without work, people can’t pay off their fines.” But, Telfeyan continued, “Much more needs to be done to fix the problem. That is why our lawsuit challenges the practice of suspending licenses for failure to pay across the board.”

This package of bills shows that Michigan lawmakers agree with Equal Justice Under Law that these laws trap Michigan’s drivers in a cycle of poverty. The legislature could still come to see that the practice must be stopped completely. In the meantime, the question of whether Michigan’s policy is constitutional is pending in the Eastern District of Michigan, and we hope for an initial ruling from the judge soon.

To read more about our case, please visit our litigation page HERE.


Open House at New Offices

IMG_0838Earlier this week, on Tuesday, September 26th, staff, friends and supporters gathered in our new offices in the Penn Quarter to hear about Equal Justice Under Law’s work to end wealth-based inequalities in our justice system.

Executive Director, Phil Telfeyan, spoke about the need for reforms, our current cases, and our recent work to help one of our clients visit her sons in prison.

IMG_0876One of our Board Members Balt Baca also spoke about the impact of our work and encouraged supporters to spread the word about the organization.

Staff and supporters engaged in lively conversation about criminal justice reform and planned to make such conversations a recurring part of the work. 100% of the event came from generous donations.

 


Furthering the Conversation on Sex Offender Registration Laws

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 7.58.48 PMDr. Elizabeth J. Letourneau — Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Policy — has done important research on juvenile sex offenders and how to prevent child sexual abuse.

In this compelling TedMed talk, Dr. Letourneau says, “Prevention, not punishment, but prevention is the key to ending child sexual abuse.”

Dr. Letourneau’s work is relevant to Equal Justice Under Law’s challenge to the punitive sex offender registration laws in Alabama. The Alabama Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification Act creates an impossible climate for ex-offenders, imposing unparalleled reporting requirements that are unmatched across the United States and placing punitive restrictions on travel and living arrangements. The law has caused countless Alabamans to become homeless and unemployed.

Research like Dr. Letourneau’s adds to the conversation: Do registration programs do anything to improve community safety?  Her work actually demonstrates the opposite.

“My research shows that sex offender registration and public notification do nothing — nothing — to prevent juvenile sexual offending or to improve community safety in any way. Instead, these policies cause harm. We surveyed 265 therapists who treat children who have sexually offended. Almost all of them linked registration and public notification to serious harmful outcomes, like increases in shame and embarrassment, anxiety, hopelessness, fear and threats and harassment, including threats and harassment of registered children by adults. Clearly, more helpful, less harmful responses to perpetration are warranted.”

We wanted to share this video to further our national conversation about sex offender registration laws and to ask: are we — as a society and criminal justice system — doing the right kinds of things to prevent sexual abuse, or are our current policies counterproductively increasing crime rates?

 


New Report on Driver’s License Suspension

Driven By Dollar Pic 2Today, Legal Aid Justice Center released a new report, Driven by Dollars: A State-By-State Analysis of Driver’s License Suspension Laws for Failure to Pay Court Debt, about how states strip drivers’ licenses for unpaid court debt. The report is an important addition to the national conversation about Drivers’ License Suspension laws. Equal Justice Under Law contributed to the report — and also has two ongoing cases challenging such laws in Michigan and Montana.

The report states: “License-for-payment systems punish people — not for any crime or traffic violation but for unpaid debts. Typically, when a state court finds a person guilty of a crime or traffic violation, it orders the person to pay a fine or other penalty along with other administrative court costs and fees. If the person does not pay on time, the court or motor vehicle agency can — and in some states, must — punish the person by suspending his or her driver’s license until the person pays in full or makes other payment arrangements with the court.”

Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law, Phil Telfeyan, says, “Losing a license is devastating. Unable to drive, people often lose their jobs or have a hard time finding employment, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to pay their debts to the state. This system traps people who are poor in an impossible cycle of poverty. It needs to end.”

The report is already receiving some national press — please check out a piece in the Washington Post and in The Detroit News.


Helping A Mother Visit Her Sons


One of Equal Justice Under Law’s clients, Joyce Davis — a Detroit-area mother and grandmother who is living on a fixed income and battling cancer — is not allowed to visit her two sons in prison because of unpaid traffic tickets. She owes $1485 to the state. Last week, she told her story to The Marshall Project:

davis brothers

Not being able to see my children, with all this hanging over me, is devastating. For one, you never know what will happen to me with my condition, and it would be devastating to not be with them, to not hold them close, ever again.”

After The Marshall Project story was posted, readers immediately started reaching out, asking how they could help, so Equal Justice Under Law organized the fundraising efforts. In less than 24 hours, supporters raised the funds to pay off all of Joyce’s debt, so she can start the process of reapplying for visitation. Joyce was overjoyed: “I love all of you! I haven’t seen my sons in nearly three years. That’s a blessing from God! Someone’s watching out for me down here and up there.”

Equal Justice Under Law is proud to be a part of Joyce’s reunion with her sons — and we will keep all of you updated as her story continues.


Phil Telfeyan Speaks at We the People Rally

DSC_0236On the morning of September 19, Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law, Phil Telfeyan, spoke at a We the People Rally — “Reclaiming the Constitution” — in front of the US Capitol building.

“What’s broken in our criminal justice system on so many dimensions is that we turn to criminalization and punishment first,” Phil told those gathered. “Our first instinct as a society is to punish, when really we should be thinking, ‘what will work?'”

Phil and the team at Equal Justice Under Law will continue using its platform to seek solutions to the most difficult problems facing our criminal justice system.


Private Probation Settlement for $14.3 million

In October 2015, Equal Justice Under Law filed a landmark RICO and constitutional class action lawsuit Rodriguez v. Providence — in federal court in Nashville, TN, challenging the predatory practices of Providence Community Corrections (“PCC”), accusing it of extorting, threatening, and abusing the impoverished people that it was supposed to be supervising in Rutherford County, Tennessee.

On September 18, 2017, PCC and Rutherford County agreed to settle that case for $14.3 million.

This settlement is an important victory for the nearly 30,000 class members whom PCC allegedly subjected to predatory and abusive practices. In addition to recompensating tens of thousands of probationers for fees that PCC illegally collected, this settlement sends a clear message to private probation companies all across the country: you will pay for violating probationers’ constitutional rights.

This settlement is pending court approval.


Class Action Lawsuit in Montana

IMG_6706On August 31, Equal Justice Under Law filed a landmark class action lawsuit to stop Montana from suspending people’s driver’s licenses simply because they are too poor to pay court costs or fines.

Losing a driver’s license can be devastating, especially in a state like Montana with few public transportation options. Thousands of Montanans can’t get their children to daycare or school, keep medical appointments, make a trip to the grocery store, or even drive to work. Montana’s policy traps people in an impossible cycle of poverty: they cannot afford to reinstate their licenses without steady employment, but they are unable to work without licenses.

This is what happened to Michael DiFrancesco, a 22-year old resident of Montana who has never been charged with a traffic violation. Michael doesn’t have a license simply because he was unable to pay a ticket for possessing alcohol when he was underage. His court debt has now ballooned to over $4,000. Without a license, it’s difficult for Michael to travel to his job as a construction worker, so he experiences intermittent unemployment as well as periods of homelessness. This is not how our justice system is supposed to work.

Michael is just one of thousands of people across the country living below the poverty line who have been affected by discriminatory license suspension practices. Yet, amazingly, until recently, these laws have gone unchallenged. Equal Justice Under Law is working to change this by leading the charge in challenging these discriminatory laws.


Parking Ticket Stands Between Mother and Son

Joyce Davis hasn’t been able to see her son in two years — all because of unpaid parking tickets.

 

davis brothers

Joyce’s son, Antwan Ramond Rankin is an inmate at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. Because Joyce can’t afford to pay her outstanding parking tickets — which combined with penalties and interest amount to nearly $1,500 — she has lost her driver’s license and now has an outstanding bench warrant.

Michigan Department of Corrections won’t allow visitors with warrants into state prison facilities because, they say, it would be too “administratively cumbersome” to figure out why the bench warrant was issued, and violent offenders could cause disruptions. Although safety is no doubt paramount, Joyce and other visitors like her threaten no one.

Joyce Davis’ only “crime” is being too poor to pay a parking ticket.

Because Michigan issues bench warrants against people who are too poor to pay court debt, the inevitable result is that indigent families are driven further apart. The fact that Joyce doesn’t have enough money to pay her parking tickets shouldn’t keep her from seeing her son.

The warden at Lakeland, Bonita Hoffner, could grant Joyce access to her son, but so far, Ms. Hoffner is ignoring Joyce’s appeal.

Equal Justice Under Law has contacted the warden several times, requesting that Ms. Hoffner direct her staff to allow visits from family members who pose no threat to the prison population and who only have outstanding warrants for court fines and fees that they do not have the ability to pay. Lakeland staff already verifies information before denying someone visitation rights; it shouldn’t be too cumbersome to discover if the warrant is only for a parking ticket.

The warden has not responded to our communications.

Earlier this year, we filed a class action lawsuit against Michigan’s Secretary of State for suspending driver’s licenses of people with safe driving records who are too poor to pay the debts they owe to the state for traffic violations or court costs. Such wealth-based schemes not only trap our most vulnerable citizens in a vicious cycle of poverty, but they make no sense. Because of these unfair punishments, people often lose their jobs or have a hard time finding employment, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to pay their debts to the state.

And in this case, this discriminatory policy is keeping one mother from seeing her son. While you’re spending Labor Day with your family, think of Joyce Davis who hasn’t been able to see her son in two years — all because of a parking ticket.