For more than 65 years, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN) has stood up for people’s civil rights as granted under the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. They accomplish this in several ways: they initiate civil legal action on behalf of alleged victims, they regularly appear in state legislative sessions to address bills that concern civil rights, they lobby for new legislation to strengthen people’s rights, and they seek to educate the public.
The nonprofit organization is governed by a board of directors and relies on donations as well as on the skills of attorneys who volunteer their time.
The purpose of filing a complaint or brief in a case involving a person’s civil rights is not just to help the plaintiff. Each time a court makes a ruling on a legal matter, that ruling influences the outcome of future cases, establishing what is known as a legal precedent. These legal precedents provide a clearer understanding of an existing law and affect the future decisions made by law enforcement, district attorneys, and the courts themselves.
For example, when authorities charged a 14-year-old girl in 2017 with distributing child pornography, the ACLU-MN filed a brief, asking for the charges to be dismissed and making the following statements:
- The statute is intended to protect children from becoming victimized by others.
- This girl took the image herself and voluntarily sent it through a social media platform to another, a behavior known as sexting.
- State law gives young teens between 13 and 16 the right to consent to sexual activity with another teen, as long as that teen is no more than 24 months older.
The brief argued, as a result of these facts, there was no victim and no crime had been committed. Allowing the case to continue would open the door for other teens to be prosecuted as criminals. If the girl was convicted, she would be required to register as a sex offender and serve several years in prison. The judge agreed with the argument in 2018 and dismissed the teenager’s case.
Another case the ACLU-MN accepted involved warrantless DNA collection by the sheriff of Dakota County. The ACLU-MN’s complaint states that Minnesota’s legislature passed a law in 2005 allowing the collection of DNA samples from people who have “appeared in court and have had a judicial probable cause determination on a charge of committing certain felony offenses.” The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 however, that this law violated the state’s constitution, as well as the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In 2015, the sheriff of Dakota County announced he would be enforcing this law since it was never repealed by the state legislature. The plaintiff was arrested in 2016 and charged with a felony offense in Dakota County. His Minnesota criminal defense attorney obtained a court order, prohibiting the sheriff from taking a pre-conviction DNA sample. In response, the sheriff appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court and won a reversal. In the complaint, the ACLU-MN claimed the collection of DNA before conviction was a violation of constitutional rights. As a result of the litigation, the sheriff finally agreed to accept a court order that required his office to destroy all pre-conviction DNA samples it had collected and barred the collection of pre-conviction DNA samples going forward.
One of the most recent cases the ACLU-MN has taken on is the detainment of immigrants for the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by the sheriff of Nobles County and Nobles County itself. The case, which was approved as a class-action lawsuit in January 2019, alleges the sheriff and Nobles County have unlawfully held about a dozen people who do not have legal status. This is after the sheriff and the county were sued by the ACLU-MN in 2017 and agreed to a settlement that included the termination of unlawful detainment.
Each year, ACLU-MN reviews proposed bills and works with state lawmakers to address issues concerning civil rights. Their priorities for 2019 include:
- Surveillance, Privacy & Tech: Requiring the government to have a warrant before using drones in surveillance operations; preventing employers, landlords and schools from forcing people to give them access to personal web pages and social media accounts; and requiring transparency for cell phone location tracking
- Voting Rights: Restoring voter rights to people who are on probation or parole for felony convictions, allowing volunteers to assist people in voting
- Criminal Justice Reform: Reforming probation guidelines, reducing fines and fees for driving-related offenses, replacing civil forfeiture with criminal forfeiture, giving forfeiture proceeds to the state general fund to eliminate “police for profit” incentives
- LGBTQ Rights: prohibiting conversion therapy for minor children
Speaking out to the public about matters involving civil rights is yet another avenue ACLU-MN employs in its efforts. This may involve sending educational material on civil rights to schools throughout the state, encouraging people to stand up for their constitutional rights, and making public statements to the press.
The ACLU-MN and the national ACLU have spoken publicly about the growing practice of requesting reverse location search warrants by police departments around the country and in the Twin Cities area. According to MPR News, reverse location search warrants give law enforcement the ability to force Google to provide data on cell phones that were in certain areas during specific timeframes. Law enforcement agencies say reverse location searches protect people’s privacy while providing important information that can help solve robberies, burglaries, and shootings. ACLU-MN is concerned that innocent people will be treated like suspects since these warrants often involve a wide net of data. In one recent case involving a home invasion in Eden Prairie, the warrant’s geographical stretch was estimated to have had the potential to gather the data of tens of thousands of people.
The Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project is among the many projects of the ACLU-MN. This project was launched in 2011, establishing an office in Mankato. The office’s purpose is to work with local communities in decreasing racial discrimination, whether it involves public schools, the immigration system, or the criminal justice system.
Note: The ACLU-MN has declined to provide quotes for this article.