The Big Five
George Bach, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, sits down with the Alibi to talk about the five biggest intrusions on New Mexicans' freedoms
By Marisa Demarco
Let's start with domestic surveillance and talk specifically about how it plays out in New Mexico. What can citizens do about it?
The first thing is, obviously, the recent media attention to the NSA's (National Security Administration’s) gathering of telephone records of Americans with the apparent assistance of AT&T, Verizon, and the other institute, BellSouth, which doesn't apply in New Mexico. We have urged individuals throughout New Mexico to file informal customer complaints with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission regarding the possible turning over of their records to the NSA by either AT&T or Verizon.
A lot of the information is not really clear at this early stage, but we're particularly concerned about the possibility that long-distance landline records were turned over to the NSA.
Do you know if that’s really the case, or is it just a suspicion?
Nobody knows any of this stuff for sure just yet, to my recollection. AT&T's been very sketchy as to their denials, or their semi-denials, with regard to this matter.
Those companies aren’t obligated to reveal when they've committed an act such as that, right?
That's a good question. I mean, one of the things we've done is to try and take a look at the policies they have regarding customers. Are they obligated to say, based on things they tell their customers, what they will do to prevent disclosure of customers' private information? We'll be continuing to research that, and we certainly hope the [Public Regulation Commission] will take action to see if AT&T or Verizon has violated some of their policies.
Are we headed toward a lawsuit in New Mexico?
There's no lawsuit in New Mexico right now. As late as 2002, Qwest, the major carrier in New Mexico, refused to turn those records over to the NSA. They would be the ones we would pursue some sort of litigation against if there had been the disclosure of individuals' records by them.
Immigration is a particularly pointed topic here in New Mexico because we are so close to the border. What are some of the concerns of the ACLU?
First of all, we should start by calling this recent venting against the immigrant populations for what it is, which is racism. The ACLU's going to try to address this matter by opening an office in the near future down on the border to address immigration issues—the increased militarization of the border by the Bush administration; the activities of vigilante groups like the Minutemen, which we've opposed in the past. So all of these things we'll continue to follow closely.
That additional office on the border, would that be in New Mexico?
That would be in New Mexico and may work in collaboration with the ACLU of Texas and deal with issues that arise in El Paso as well.
Regarding the separation of church and state, what about the Rio Rancho school board's pull for intelligent design? Was that a big issue this year for you?
Sure. This is, again, the result of what we believe is coming from the White House and the current administration's attempt to push its personal religious views upon American citizens, and you see that with regard to intelligent design. In Rio Rancho, through a collaborative effort with the ACLU, the local teachers' union and some of the local teachers as well as interested parents, we did confront what was an attempt to get the foot in the door in Rio Rancho for the teaching of intelligent design. So that's one of the ways we see the infringement on religious liberties in New Mexico.
In addition to that, we have cooperating attorneys who have been looking very closely at the federal government's funding of abstinence-only education throughout the country. Our concern is that federal moneys are being used to push a specific religious agenda within the context of abstinence-only sex education.
The state, to date, has had the policy of sending that abstinence-only money only to K through five, and we believe the feds are pressuring the state to make sure that money is spent in high schools as well. It remains to be seen how the state's going to address that issue. We're very concerned that some of the organizations teaching this abstinence-only education, again, are using the money to proselytize their specific religious views, which is not only a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, but runs afoul of the regulatory structures that are imposed upon that money.
Let's talk about the ACLU's concerns about conditions of inmates in the state.
Well, many of the county jails throughout the state are, frankly, cesspools. They need to be cleaned up. There needs to be statewide standards for county jail conditions, and that's not something we currently have. We are going to begin to address county jails on a step-by-step basis, basically one at a time. We are in discussions with Doña Ana County regarding their county detention center, and we are going to look at conditions in San Juan County, because we receive a lot of reports about conditions there.
That's regarding county jails, which is distinct from state prisons. The issue in state prisons most recently has involved the overcrowding of the women's prison, the Grants facility. We have current litigation against the department of corrections involving their refusal to convene an Overpopulation Control Commission, which is supposed to address the conditions that arise when the population is overcrowded for more than 60 days.
Grants’ women’s prison was overcrowded for more than a year, and the secretary of corrections refused to convene the Overpopulation Control Commission because he believes it's bad policy. It may be bad policy in his mind, but it's also the law of the state of New Mexico, passed by the State Legislature and signed by Gov. Johnson.
That commission doesn't have to let inmates out. It can do that. It can look at letting out inmates that are nonviolent and who are short-termers and are going to get out within 180 days anyway, but they don't have to. The secretary has refused to call together that commission after State District Judge Jim Hall issued an order directing him to convene it. He has refused to do so. So we're continuing to battle it out in front of the New Mexico court of appeals to see that it happens and that some of these issues get addressed.
How did the ball get dropped? How do we get here, where judicial orders are ignored and facilities are so overcrowded?
With regards to the county jail, it's a result of a lack of state standards, for one thing. Sometimes it has to do with funding; there are not enough funds being spent to make sure the inmates have the proper health care and the proper mental health care they need.
But what you're seeing right now with regard to the current administration at the Department of Corrections is just a refusal to follow the law. They're not even dropping the ball. They just don't think the law is correct.
And, again, the Legislature has weighed the issues thoroughly. When prisons become overcrowded, that's when riots occur. That's when violence occurs. That's when unhealthy and unsanitary conditions occur.
What was happening in Grants is there were so many women in the facility that sewage was backing up into the living quarters; I mean just pools of sewage sitting there. The Legislature has looked at this and said that, for one thing, do we want to have lawsuits based on the conditions in a prison?
How do we see what you call “trickle-down law enforcement” play out locally?
A perfect example is the reactionary policies of the Martin Chavez administration. Their abuse of the nuisance abatement laws, for example. Their attempts to pass—well, they did pass—a law that permitted [the Albuquerque Police Department] to seize and forfeit vehicles upon arrest of DWI, not conviction. The ACLU sued and challenged that law and got it struck down, but that's a perfect example. They were deeming the vehicle a nuisance and going after it under nuisance abatement law.
This is Mayor Chavez' attempt—and he's been quite frank about it—to buck the court system, because he doesn't want to go through the due process procedures that are embedded in the court system and to rewrite criminal law into nuisance abatement law.
We saw it with regard to the DWI actions. We see it with regard to the red-light cameras that are growing in usage throughout the city, and we see it by the actions of the Safe City Strike Force, where you see them threatening landlords and tenants with eviction and condemnation of properties if they don't do what the city administration feels should be done with regard to law enforcement.
Sometimes the city gets it right when it comes to those issues, but what happens is they make arbitrary decisions. I was just informed of a case of a disabled elderly woman who had lived in her apartment for 15 years and was threatened with eviction because of a, frankly, unrelated criminal matter that arose regarding her property. It's really not only sad for the citizens of New Mexico, but it's a war on the poor.
We're going to be seeing that with the city's use of Kendra's Law as well, the mandatory outpatient drug treatment of individuals. If it passes the City Council and is signed by the mayor, the ACLU will challenge it as unconstitutional.
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