Release: AG again flouts OPRA on death records of Hudson County Jail inmate

Contact: Howard Moskowitz – (201) 844-3700

Citing a 1994 State Medical Examiner (SME) regulation superseded by the enactment of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) in 2001, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) last night, in violation of the Act, refused to disclose SME records on Jennifer Towle, an inmate of the Hudson County Jail, who died on July 14. (PDF of OAG’s “Receipt” may be found here.)

It was the second time in a week. On September 7, in replying to an earlier OPRA request for SME records on Towle, OAG also unlawfully refused to provide them. The OAG custodian of records advised:

You may seek to send a new OPRA request in the future to check the status of these reports.

Hudson Civic Action (HCA) and Weehawken resident Steve Ramshur, its executive director, did so. Last night’s OAG denial includes identical language to that quoted.

One of the denied records, the external examination report, created nine weeks ago in conjunction with the autopsy, can be expected to address Towle’s head injuries, reported in, “Inmate who died had head injury, pieces of plastic in stomach, sources say ,” Jersey Journal, July 19, 2017, http://www.nj.com/hudson/index.ssf/2017/07/inmate_who_died_had_head_injury_pieces_of_plastic.html.

The 1994 regulation on which OAG relies, N.J.A.C. 13:49–3.1(b)(5), provides that a requested record may be withheld “whenever medical examiner’s records are not yet complete.”

“OAG is surely aware that OPRA plainly precludes such across-the-board investigation-in-progress denials,” said Jersey City attorney Howard Moskowitz, who represents HCA and Ramshur.

As pertinent, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-3(a), a provision of OPRA, provides that “where it shall appear that the record or records which are sought pertain to an investigation in progress by any public agency, the right of access may be denied if the inspection, copying or examination of such record or records shall be inimical to the public interest.” (Emphasis supplied.)

Moskowitz noted, that appellate court decisions have rejected the contention that release of 911 tapes meets the “inimical to the public interest” test.

In North Jersey Media Group. Inc. v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, 447 N.J. Super. 182,(App. Div. 2016), the Appellate Division of Superior Court set forth as follows:

The “investigation in process” exemption, N.J.S.A. 47:1A–3, shields records that “pertain to an investigation in progress by any public agency” if such access is “inimical to the public interest.” See, e.g., Courier News v. Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, 358 N.J. Super. 373, 380 n. 5, (App. Div.2003) (rejecting claim that access to a 911 tape one year after a homicide fell within the “investigation in progress” exemption).

[Id. at 206-07.]

“This is not a close question,'” said Moskowitz. “It is unacceptable that the Office of the Attorney General ignores and violates the clearly-stated law.”

According to media reports, Towle was serving a six-month sentence on a DWI conviction. She was the second Hudson County Jail inmate to die in five weeks, immigration detainee Carlos Bonilla having died on June 10.

Statement to Hudson County Freeholders, Sep. 14

Hudson Civic Action statement delivered September 14 at meeting of Hudson County Freeholders

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today. My name is Laura Keller, I live in Weehawken, and I’m a member of the group Hudson Civic Action. I want to speak to you about 287(g) and Fair and Welcoming Community resolutions in Hudson County. As you know, three cities in Hudson County recently passed Fair and Welcoming Community resolutions—Jersey City in February, Union City also in February, and West New York in May. [Note – I learned after I spoke that Kearny has also passed a Fair and Welcoming resolution.] Those three cities together represent well over half of the population of Hudson County. Also, as a resident of Weehawken, I can tell you there’s a movement to pass a Fair and Welcoming Community resolution in my town. Basically, since President Trump ended the Priority Enforcement Program in January, there has been a groundswell of support in Hudson County for immigrant rights, documented and undocumented alike.

But there’s only so much that can be done on the municipal level. The first and most important point of the Fair and Welcoming Community resolution regards denying local resources to enforce federal immigration law. That can only be accomplished on the county level, as the primary location of cooperation with ICE is in the county correctional facility under the 287(g) program.

287(g) is unnecessary. ICE has plenty of other tools – and lots of federal money – to detain dangerous criminals. Truly dangerous criminals can be apprehended by ICE with a judicial criminal warrant. And, of course, ICE aside, New Jersey has its own criminal justice system, separate from the civil immigration system, that deals with minor and major offenders, citizen and non-citizen all the same, as it should be. When two people commit the same crime, the punishment should be the same, non-citizens shouldn’t be subject to a separate, much harsher system, where they are denied the right to an attorney. There is no need to use valuable local resources to help ICE sidestep our criminal justice system.

287(g) is also entirely voluntary. Hudson County is one of only four counties that have 287(g) agreements out of the 21 counties in New Jersey. It’s also the only county in north Jersey to have a 287(g) agreement. Our neighboring counties, Bergen and Essex, both have Intergovernmental Service Agreements (aka bed contracts) but not 287(g) agreements. Hudson County’s agreement can be terminated at any time and should be terminated immediately.

Lastly, and most importantly, 287(g) is morally wrong. ICE’s agenda is xenophobic, and, in my opinion, against everything we stand for as Americans. Because ICE is a large, powerful federal agency, there’s very little we can do on the local level to constrain its mission, a mission that often results in separating families, terrorizing communities, and denying fundamental human rights. However, we have a moral imperative to do what we can. Ending 287(g) and enacting a Fair and Welcoming Resolution are two things that we must do to push back against the dangerous ICE agenda.

To sum up: 287(g) is unnecessary, voluntary, and morally wrong. Ending 287(g) in Hudson County would make our criminal and civil justice systems more fair, it would make members of immigrant communities more likely to report crimes and cooperate with police, and it would maintain the reputation of Hudson County, which has always been at the very center of the American melting pot, as a truly just place, where diverse communities can live together and thrive together, knowing that local officials truly represent everyone who lives here. Thank you for your time.

Statement to Hudson County Freeholders

The following statement was delivered at the Hudson County Freeholders Meeting July 12:

To the Board of Chosen Freeholders of Hudson County:

My name is Steve Ramshur, and I live in Weehawken. I stand before you as a proud 20 year resident of Hudson County, as a person of Faith, and as the Director of Hudson Civic Action. I am also a member of Faith in New Jersey, an interfaith network seeking to advance justice at the local, state and federal level; as well as a coordinating member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministry of New Jersey’s Immigration Task Force.

As a person of faith, I take oaths and covenants very seriously. In all aspects of my life, whether personal, professional, or in the public square, I measure myself against my varying ability to meet these commitments. When I fall short, I pledge to do better. Today, this body has the opportunity to do better than the past, and to Do Justice.

Just a few minutes ago, every person in this room took a solemn oath to uphold “Liberty and Justice FOR ALL”.  I know that act has become ritual, with perhaps little thought given to its implications, but I still get emotional every single time I say those words.

It is not Justice only for the documented, or people of Anglo-European descent, or even for citizens. We pledged to uphold Liberty and Justice FOR ALL, including inmates, detainees, non-citizens, and the undocumented. Lady Liberty and Blind Justice do not care a whit about the status of an individual’s documentation, country of origin, the color of someone skin, or the language they speak.

As a Unitarian, I believe passionately in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. Forgive me, but I cannot help but wonder if we would be having this conversation were the late detainee an English-speaking Caucasian woman from the United Kingdom, with an Anglo-European name, rather than a humble Honduran day laborer.

The deplorable conditions at Hudson County Correctional Facility have been well documented for years; most recently, by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest in their February 2017 report, “Detained and Denied: Healthcare Access in Immigration Detention”[1] (please note that this report was published AFTER the report issued October 24, 2016 by the four member panel created by the Freeholders).

It is too late to uphold Liberty for Rolando Meza Espinoza. However, today, we have the opportunity to live out our professed values and principles by working towards Justice for Mr. Espinoza by holding a fully empowered, transparent, and public investigative hearing.

The Resolution this Board is voting on today, however well-intentioned, is nevertheless deeply flawed.

First, there will be four Freeholders, rather than a higher number, on the ad hoc committee. At five, the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) kick in. In other words, the deliberations of the ad hoc committee will not be open and transparent.

Secondly, and more to the point, the committee is to be comprised of “administration medical and professional staff designated by County Executive DeGise”[2]. However,  the County Executive is directly accountable for conditions at the Hudson County Corrections facility.  To have the County Executive to have control over an investigation’s proceedings, given the long history of complaints of conditions at the jail (to say nothing of ongoing litigation proceedings) is a blatant conflict of interest, and smacks  of Trumpian tactics of avoidance and redirection.

Instead of the pending resolution, we want you to do what is right and just, not what is easy or politically expedient. Transactional Politics have no place here, now. Do what is right and Just. The only proper response to this egregious loss of life is an independent and fully empowered investigatory body, provided for by N.J.S.A. 40:41A-86::

The board may, by majority vote of the whole number of its members, require the head of the executive branch to appear before the board sitting as a committee of the whole, and to bring before the board such records and reports, and such officials and employees of the county as the board shall deem necessary to insure clarification of the matter under study.

Just when should this statute be used to establish an independent investigative hearing? In case of fiduciary malfeasance or embezzlement? Perhaps. I contend that an avoidable death is the most compelling use of the statute, and the necessary response of this Board.

This Board is comprised of individuals who have dedicated their lives to public service, and have our community’s best interests at heart, and, at their best, make deliberative decisions informed by deeply held values and Democratic principles.

But, as I said, I have lived here 20 years, and it is an election year. However, this tragedy is bigger than machine politics, and should transcend party loyalties.

Hudson Civic Action conducted an analysis of all 45 governmental entities that currently have 287(g) agreements with ICE[3]. Of those 45 entities, in last November’s Presidential election, 29 voted for Trump, and 16 for Clinton. Of those bodies that voted for Clinton, one stands out as the bluest County by more than 10 basis points – Hudson County. Right here in Hudson County, where the Statue of Liberty is a beacon to the world, we have a voluntary 287(g) agreement in place that permits Hudson County Corrections officers to collaborate with ICE and uphold the Trumpian immigration agenda, while working on local payroll supported by Hudson County tax dollars.

Be assured – as more and more local residents are educated on the 287(g) agreement, so uncharacteristic of our community with its long history of support for the immigrant community, this Board is going to hear more resistance in these meetings, in the press, and, in November, at the polls.

I encourage you all to do Justice. Do the right thing, the only just thing, and conduct a fully empowered and transparent investigative hearing. Furthermore, to limit the chances that something like this will happen again, I call upon you to end the 287(g) agreement and the County’s relationship with ICE.  The Board’s actions today will be remembered in November by all those present in this room, as well as by our substantial extended networks.

With thanks for your time and appreciation for your Service,

Steve Ramshur
Weehawken resident
Director, HudsonCivicAction.org

[1] New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, “Detained and Denied: Healthcare Access in Immigration Detention,” (Feb. 2017), available at http://www.nylpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/HJ-Health-in-Immigration-Detention-Report_2017.pdf

[2] “County Committee Will Independently Review Detainee Death”, July 11, 2017, http://www.hudsoncountynj.org/county-committee-will-independently-review-detainee-death/

[3] “287g agreements, nationally, sorted by 2016 Election Results”, Hudson Civic Action, July 12, 2017, http://hudsoncivicaction.org/2017/07/12/287g-agreements-nationally/

 

MONDAY: Demand Justice for Rolando Meza Espinosa

Click for story on NJ.com
Rolando died in ICE custody June 10

Join us Monday night at 6 PM to bear witness for the needless death of Rolando Meza Espinosa, who received inadequate medical care while detained at the Hudson County Correctional Facility and died in ICE custody.

Address: 30-35 Hackensack Avenue, Kearny, NJ 07032
Facebook Event

Mistaken for another undocumented immigrant, Mr. Meza Espinosa was taken from a job site, and died of “internal bleeding and hemorrhagic shock” from pre-existing conditions that went untreated while in custody.

Even after death, ICE didn’t properly identify Mr. Meza Espinosa, providing in their News Release (PDF) the wrong name of the deceased.

Although Mr. Meza Espinosa was in ICE custody, Hudson County is responsible for the care and wellbeing of all inmates of the Facility.  Article III(1) of the 1996 Intergovernmental Service Agreement with Hudson County (PDF) sets forth that “[t]he Contractor will provide housing, safekeeping, subsistence and other services for INS[*] detainee(s) within its facility (or facilities) consistent with the types and levels of services and programs routinely afforded its own population…. The Contractor agrees to provide INS detainees with the same levels and types of medical services and care as are provided its own facility population.”

This is yet another sad example of the deplorable and inhumane conditions at Hudson County Correctional Facility, and of ICE’s blatant disregard for civil rights and the constitution. Hudson County leadership must bring justice to Rolando’s family, end their relationship with ICE, bring truly independent oversight and transparency of these incidents, and finally answer to longtime requests from advocates.

All people of conscience are encouraged to show up with their hearts, feet, and voices on Monday June 26 at 6 PM, to demand accountability from our elected officials.

Sponsored by:
ACLU of NJ
American Friends Service Committee
Bronx Defenders
Faith in NJ
First Friends of NY/NJ
Hudson Civic Action
Legal Aid Society
Make the Road NJ
New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice

NJ Senate Bill S3007 needs your help!

I took a democracy field trip yesterday, traveling to Trenton to observe the NJ Senate Judiciary committee hearing on Marijuana legalisation via S3195, sponsored by Senator Nicholas Scutari, as well as to witness the passage (hopefully) of S3007, sponsored by Senator Brian Stack, which “Establishes program to reimburse local governments for federal grant funds lost due to “sanctuary jurisdiction” status.”

In lobbying for Fair and Welcoming Communities Resolution across Hudson County, immigration advocates have heard several lawmakers say they want to support the effort, but fear losing Federal funding as a result, as has been threatened by the Trump administration. S3007 would directly address this concern, filling any potential gaps in funding.

However, once S3007 was announced, it was immediately held, and no vote was taken. I caught up with Senator Stack outside the Senate Chambers and asked what had happened, and he said the bill was held because one member was missing whose vote was needed. He also said, “It’s going to be tough.”

I asked Stack how citizen advocates could help, where the pressure points were, and he said to reach out to Senators Van Drew (D-District 1), Turner (D-District 15), and Madden (D-District 4).

If you are a constituent of any of these three Senators, I strongly encourage you to contact them and express your support for S3007. Use this form to find your Senator based upon where you live.

Act for Justice,
Steve Ramshur
Foiunder, Hudson Civic Action

Lobbying Pro Tips from Friends Committee on National Legislation

This past Saturday, June 17, the Montclair Friends Meeting hosted Emily Wirzba of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) for a workshop in Effective Lobbying.

FCNL, which will be celebrating its 75th anniversary next year, focuses upon Congress and National policy, and “lobbies Congress and the administration to advance peace, justice, opportunity, and environmental stewardship.”

Like Citizens Climate Lobby, FCNL operates from a respectful position that seeks common ground and shared values, regardless of party affiliation. This is not a strategic stance, but springs from the Quaker belief in the light of God that resides in every single human being.

Ms. Wirzba, an FCNL Legislative Representative lobbying Congress in Sustainable Energy and Environment, had numerous tips on how to effectively lobby elected officials at all levels of government.

The key message for me, was that lobbying is a skill set that can be taught, and learned. It’s about relationship building with those that you disagree with, and although it can be challenging, it can be transformational, for both the lobbyist and those being lobbied.

Boiling down the three hour workshop:

Do your homework:
– What do I want, and who can give it to me?
– What do they want, and how can I provide it?
Conduct power mapping of the elected official
– What major industries and players are in their district?
– What is their personal history, and how might it align to your cause?

When calling your Senator or Congressperson to express your desire to have them vote one way or another, call the Washington, DC office, rather than the district office, as that is where the legislative director sits.

One question that has been under debate lately is whether it is at all useful to contact members of Congress for whom you are not a constituent – do they pay any attention. The answer from Ms. Wirzba was an unqualified “no”. In fact, it is widely known that snail mail sent by non-constituents are simply thrown in the trash. However, if you are trying to get through to a powerful Member of Congress, you can send your message directly to the Committee on which they sit. You can also use social media for those who do not represent you.

When writing Letters to Editor, not only may your letter not get published, but if it does, you may get no notification and be unaware it is in print. Always submit your letter drafts to your elected official (E.O.) at the same time it is submitted to the publication – especially for positive letters in support of the E.O., as they may not get published.

If you get an in-person meeting with your E.O., bring a one-pager that clearly states the “Ask”, presents the supporting facts and arguments, and provides your group’s contact info. Make it easy for the staff – clear language, limited to one page. Be kind – you have no idea how many people they see in a week.

Have a clearly defined team, with a group leader, note-taker, timekeeper, and delegation members to share personal stories about how this issue affects you, your family, and your community. Use quantifiable statistics whenever possible, in addition to anecdotes (e.g., “in the first 100 days of office, the current administration has deported 40% more individuals than at the same time last year”).

Start the meeting with “Thank you”, and end it the same way.

Be prepared with a list of the E.O.’s colleagues that are supporting the Ask – knowing that s/he would not be alone will help to give your E.O. political cover.

Stick to one specific request. Don’t bring in the kitchen sink. You have a short window of opportunity – usually 30 minutes – don’t muddy the water.

Practice, practice, practice to ensure that all your team is on message. And don’t judge the success of your efforts on the results of just one meeting. This work takes time.

FCNL has a wealth of more advocacy resources on their website. Particularly useful is the Lobby Visit Planner & Roadmap, which you and your advocacy team can use to organize your meeting and stay focused.

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