How Civil Liberties Fared in the State Legislature
The Washington Legislature convened on January 14 and has now gone into a special session. It’s been an unusual and challenging year in Olympia: While Democrats retain a strong majority in the House, the Senate is closely divided, with two dissident Democrats joining Republicans in a “Majority Coalition Caucus.” So most committees are chaired by Republicans, and there is gridlock on bills that do not have bipartisan support.
The result has been confusion and uncertainty as to the progress and likely fate of legislation. Several key bills backed by the ACLU – including the Reproductive Parity Act, the DREAM Act, and the Voting Rights Act – passed the House only to be stalled by the Senate leadership. We remain vigilant lest bills considered dead at the end of the regular session resurface for a vote in the special session. And a late-developing push to address the problem of drunk driving is expected to result in passage of some legislation during special session.
Here are highlights of some key bills impacting civil liberties.
Safe and Just Alternatives – HB 1504, SB 5372 -Support
Status: Had hearing in House Judiciary Committee, did not come up for a vote in committee
Across the country, there is a growing recognition that the capital punishment system is broken beyond repair. The death penalty is costly and ineffective – it neither deters crime nor does it offer swift and certain justice for victims’ families. Maintaining the death penalty is particularly untenable given Washington’s current fiscal crisis, as capital cases are far more expensive than cases seeking life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Our state could better use resources spent on the death penalty to support proven strategies for fighting crime and addressing the needs of crime victims and communities.
With strong backing from the ACLU-WA, the Safe and Just Alternatives Campaign is advocating for legislation to replace the death penalty with a sentence of lifetime incarceration without the possibility of parole. A diverse range of voices – including law enforcement and corrections officials, and family members of murder victims – testified for the bill at a House committee hearing in March, and former Gov. Dan Evans submitted a statement endorsing it. Most significantly, this session is the first in which we have had legislative champions for repeal in all four caucuses – House and Senate, Republican and Democrat. Visit www.sjawa.org to learn more about the ongoing campaign to repeal the death penalty.
Reproductive Parity Act – HB 1044 -Support
Status: Passed the House, had hearing in Senate, has not advanced out of Senate committee
Washington women need the freedom and privacy to make healthcare decisions that are right for themselves and their families. Washington women need the freedom and privacy to make healthcare decisions that are right for themselves and their families. This legislation will ensure that insurance plans in Washington cover abortion if they cover maternity care. Denying insurance coverage for abortion interferes with a woman’s ability to make important choices for herself and her family.
As our state proceeds with the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), Washington women face increased barriers in their ability to access reproductive healthcare, including abortion services. Anti-choice politicians in Congress tried to undermine the ACA by inserting a provision to roll back reproductive healthcare. This legislation addresses that problem and guarantees access to a full range of reproductive healthcare, including abortion.
Although 25 senators – a majority in the Senate – have signed a statement saying they would vote for the bill, Senate leadership has not allowed it to advance to a vote in the full Senate. We continue to press for a vote to happen during special session.
Washington Dream Act – HB 1817 -Support
Status: Passed House, has not yet advanced to vote in full Senate
Aspiring young people should have a fair opportunity to attend college, regardless
of their immigration status. The bill would extend eligibility for financial aid for higher education to high school graduates who do not have legal residency but were brought to the U.S. as young children. The legislation passed the House with a very strong 77- 20 bipartisan vote, but Senate leadership has not yet allowed it to come to the floor for a vote. Gov. Inslee has repeatedly pointed to this bill as a priority for special session.
Washington Voting Rights Act – HB 1413 - Support
Status: Passed the House, had a hearing in Senate, has not come up for committee vote in Senate
In partnership with the Win Win network, OneAmerica, and the Korematsu Center, the ACLU-WA has been working to pass legislation that would ensure all communities have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice in local elections. For government to be accountable, all voices need to be heard. But some election systems prevent all neighborhoods from being represented in local government. Where communities vote in blocs, slim majorities can dominate.
The Washington Voting Rights Act encourages local jurisdictions to correct problems caused by racially polarized voting. And if they fail to do so, it allows for a lawsuit in state court with a judge tailoring a solution, such as moving from an at-large to a district-based system. It enables local governments to remedy inequities and avoid expensive federal litigation.
The federal Voting Rights Act is under attack in the US Supreme Court, and now is a good time to enshrine voting rights protections in state law. California has adopted a state voting rights act, and it has worked to improve the fairness of government there.
Government Drones – HB 1771, SB 5782 -Support
Status: Had hearing and passed House Public Safety Committee, did not come to vote in full House
Best known for their military uses to take out alleged terrorists abroad, unmanned aerial vehicles – aka drones – are coming to domestic skies in force. They present government with unprecedented capabilities for tracking activities and otherwise invading the privacy of law-abiding people. We can expect to see drones with high-power zoom lenses, night vision, and technology that can see through ceilings and walls. Clear restrictions on their use are needed now, as temptations for law enforcement to employ drones for more and more intrusive missions are inevitable.
The ACLU-WA urged the adoption of reasonable statewide regulations that would allow for responsible government use of drones – for missing person searches, for barricaded hostage situations, etc. – while barring their use for general surveillance. ACLUbacked legislation would have required to state or local government to get prior approval for acquiring drones and would have required a law enforcement to get a warrant for their use, except in limited circumstances.
The bill gained bipartisan support in both houses, and passed its House committee with an 8-1 vote. Then opposition emerged from Boeing, and its lobbying campaign killed the bill. The ACLU will continue to push for statewide regulation of drones and other surveillance technologies.
Social Media Accounts – SSB 5211 -Support
Status: Passed Senate and House, sent to Gov. Inslee
This ACLU-backed bill aims to protect employee privacy in response to reports that some employers have been asking job applicants to log into their Facebook accounts. It bars employers from demanding that their workers or job applicants provide social media passwords or access to their accounts in the employer’s presence. It also bars employers from requiring that they be added to an employee’s list of personal contacts or that an employee’s privacy settings be changed. Crafted with input from civil libertarians and business interests, the bill passed after withdrawal of an overly broad business-backed amendment that would have required employees to provide access to their social media accounts during some investigations of alleged misconduct.
Mandatory Incarceration – SHB 1096, SB 5376 -Opposed
Status: Passed House Judiciary Committee, did not advance to vote by full House
We need smart, carefully crafted solutions to the difficult problems facing at-risk youth. This legislation would have spent scarce public safety dollars to incarcerate juveniles for longer periods for firearms offenses, with little due process or judicial discretion.
It flies in the face of what we know works to control youth violence – true community based prevention programs that provide the resources and opportunities needed to keep young people out of gangs. The bill wrongly takes the discretion to look at each individual youth’s needs out of the hands of judges, where it belongs. We need to stop looking for get-tough solutions that don’t work and instead fund gang prevention programs that are proven, effective, and currently underfunded. Thankfully, due to a groundswell of opposition from a coalition of allies that serve youth and communities of color, brought together by ACLU-WA, the bill did not move to the House floor.
Civil Commitment – HB 1114 -Opposed
Status: Passed House and Senate, sent to Gov. Inslee
In the wake of widespread gun violence late in 2012, problematic bills were introduced in both the House and Senate that fast-track individuals not found competent to stand trial into civil commitments, with a lower threshold of due process than we believe is constitutionally required. The bills also prevent judges from exercising their discretion to allow the release of mentally incompetent people not judged to be dangerous. Instead of release, it would now be mandatory to send those individuals to jail, where in many cases they await competency evaluations for months with little or nothing in the way of mental health treatment. This likely creates a larger public safety issue down the road as those individuals decompensate and eventually do become dangerous.
Unfortunately, one of these bills was passed over our objection, and we have asked Gov. Inslee to veto it.
School Discipline – HB 1680 -Support
Status: Passed Senate, did not come to a vote in House
We spent a great deal of time this year looking to fix the problem of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions that force large numbers of students out of school and perhaps into the criminal justice system. Our priority has been to create incentives for alternative disciplinary practices that eliminate or reduce suspensions and expulsions and establish the principle that school districts are not relieved of their duty to educate students even after those students are out of that physical school.
Omnibus bills were introduced in both chambers that would have moved towards that goal, and the Senate bill was sent over to the House. Despite political will, the bills eventually failed due to budget squabbling, although it is possible they would be revived during special session.
School Searches – SB 5618 -Support
Status: Passed the Senate, did not come to a vote in House
A problematic pair of bills was introduced that would have allowed the police to conduct a warrantless search of a student at school, without any safety concerns and without any probable cause to believe the student has violated the law. These bills were unnecessary because school officials already have the authority to conduct searches in response to imminent safety threats. But the bills likely would have increased the criminalization and over-policing of students involved in minor school misconduct, disproportionately impacting students of color and leading to an expensive increase in dropout rates.
Opposition mobilized to the bills by the ACLU-WA ensured that they did not pass the legislature.