This Washington

Where Your Civil Liberties Stand in Olympia

By Josh Cohen January 22, 2010

Most legislators will tell you their minds are on the budget this session, but several significant civil liberties bills—dealing with free speech, women’s rights, and drug reform—are in play this year.

The ACLU of Washington is throwing its lobbying weight behind six civil liberties-related bills for the 2010 session. In addition, the ACLU’s policy director, Shankar Narayan, says he's testifying against several regressive bills.


Unsurprisingly, Seattle Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles’ (D-36) marijuana decriminalization bill and Seattle Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson's (D-33) legalization bill and have gotten a lot of attention, and the ACLU’s nod of approval. Teodora covered the pot bills last week—and Rep. Dickerson's legalization bill is now dead. But Kohl-Welles bill—which would make possession by an adult of up to 40 grams of marijuana a civil infraction and carry a $100 fine as opposed to a misdemeanor with potential jail time—is still breathing.

The ACLU is playing to the legislature's budget obsession, arguing that the change would save the state millions of dollars.

The ACLU is supporting a drug bill that’s gotten less airplay than the pro-pot bills. South Tacoma Sen. Rosa Franklin’s Bill, SB 5516, would provide limited legal immunity for people who call 911 on behalf of someone having a drug overdose.

The idea behind the bill is that some drug overdose deaths could be prevented if other drug users didn’t fear arrest after calling in the OD.


Two incarceration bills—one deals with the shackling of pregnant prisoners and the other with abolishing the death penalty—have garnered the ACLU’s support this session. Tacoma Rep. Jeannie Darneille. (D-27) is sponsoring the anti-shackling bill (which I wrote about earlier this week). It would outlaw shackling female inmates at correctional facilities during their third trimester, while in labor, or postpartum.

Last year, the practice was ruled a violation of the 8th amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The ACLU said in its press release that shackling “infringes upon a woman’s constitutionally protected reproductive freedom, and especially burdens poor women and women of color, who are over-represented in the prison system.”

Seattle Senator Ed Murray (D-43) has introduced a bill that would abolish the death penalty. SB 5476 proposes to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Though it seems like the bill will have serious hurdles to clear, Shankar Narayan sees a change in the mindset surrounding capitol punishment.

“We’re excited about it because there’s more evidence that the tide is turning, even with law enforcement,” said Narayan. “A study polled law enforcement officers and found they didn’t think the death penalty was an effective deterrent. When you combine that with the [monetary] cost of the death penalty, you have to question its value.”


People keen on maintaining some semblance of privacy in their lives (assuming they don’t already broadcast every detail via Twitter and Facebook), will be happy the ACLU is backing  SB 6499, also from Sen. Murray. Murray's bill would add privacy protections for drivers crossing toll bridges. As it stands, the proposed 520 tolls will be done electronically with transponders and cameras reading every car’s license plate. Sen. Murray’s bill would help ensure that the information only be used for toll collection and would not be available to the public or (at least not readily available) for use in court.

The ACLU’s second privacy priority is Kitsap County Rep. Sherry Appleton’s (D-23) enhanced intelligence bill, HB 2798. Though the name sounds big brothery, the bill is actually an effort to curb law enforcement agencies from collecting data without suspicion of criminal activity.

“More and more in recent years we’ve seen government entities gathering up data based on personal belief, religious background, and participation in protests,” said Narayan. “It’s an effort by the government to predict what people might do instead of what they’ve done, and it’s a worrisome trend.”

Rep. Appleton’s bill would require agencies to undergo periodic internal and external audits, allow individuals access to information collected about their political and religious beliefs, and allow them to seek destruction of the information collected.

In addition to pushing civil liberties reforms, the ACLU is lobbying against several bills. They’ve already testified against several anti-gang activity bills from Yakima county Rep. Norm Johnson (R-14), which I wrote about here. The bills would, in effect, allow the police to seize private property that’s been used for gang activity.

The ACLU is also concerned about Fort Lewis Sen. Mike Carrell’s “Guilty but Mentally Ill” bill, SB 5253. The bill would create a new plea, guilty but mentally ill, that would place mentally ill offenders in prison instead of in hospitals.

Finally, Narayan says the ACLU is keeping a particularly close eye on bills reacting to the Maurice Clemmons shootings. One bill Narayan mentioned in particular is HJR 4214 which would deny bail to certain types of violent offenders.

“Obviously the Clemmons shootings were a terrible tragedy that we don’t want to see repeated, but I urge the legislature to consider whether a constitutional amendment to deny bail to particular categories of offenders is really going to do anything to prevent that?” asked Narayan.

With 42 Reps. signed on to the bill, including liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, Narayan has an uphill battle against this one. The best policies don't often emerge after the public goes through traumatic events, but they usually gets fast tracked into law anyway.
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