Tag Archives: civil rights

Civil rights groups sue over alleged abuse at youth prison

Civil rights groups sued Wisconsin seeking improvements at a youth prison because guards there are still abusing children despite state and federal investigations.

The American Civil Liberties Union along with the Juvenile Law Center filed a federal lawsuit this week asking a judge to limit solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and the use of pepper spray at the Irma facility. State investigators spent all of 2015 probing allegations of widespread abuse at Lincoln Hills. The FBI has since taken over the probe.

A number of state prison officials have resigned or retired in the midst of the investigations. But no one has been charged and the FBI has said nothing about the investigation’s progress.

ACLU attorney Larry Dupuis said during a Milwaukee news conference that his group had hoped the investigations would prompt changes at the prison. But he said guards continue to violate inmates’ constitutional rights by locking them up in solitary confinement, chaining them to desks and pepper spraying them for minor infractions, prompting the ACLU lawsuit. During a visit to the prison in October, Dupuis said, he saw a boy get pepper sprayed and dragged off because he wouldn’t remove his shoes.

“Usually when ACLU shows up at a prison, (guards are) on their best behavior,” Dupuis said. “We were shocked by what we heard and saw for ourselves. If I had any reason to believe something was coming in the investigations, we may have held off.”

FBI spokesman Leonard Peace declined to comment, saying the investigation was ongoing. State Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook declined comment as well.

The ACLU and the law center filed the lawsuit on behalf of three children currently held at the prison and one child who was held there before he was moved to a mental health facility.

The filing alleges on any day up to 20 percent of the prison’s population is held in solitary confinement in tiny, unfurnished cells. They receive only an hour of education instead of the four or five they would normally get and are chained to their desks or shackled, the lawsuit alleges. Guards needlessly pepper spray inmates for minor, nonviolent infractions, sometimes using a spray meant to stop bears, the lawsuit added.

The practices are unconstitutionally excessive and cruel, the lawsuit said. The filing asks a judge to allow solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spray only in rare cases to avoid serious physical harm.

Attorney General Brad Schimel declined to defend the state in the lawsuit Tuesday because the Department of Justice ran the state’s portion of the investigation, creating a conflict, DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said. That means Gov. Scott Walker’s administration will need to hire private attorneys.

Twenty-nine states have prohibited solitary confinement as punishment for juveniles, according to the pro bono law firm Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest. Wisconsin is one of 15 states that limit the time a juvenile spends in solitary confinement; Wisconsin’s maximum is 60 days. Seven states have no limit on solitary confinement or allow indefinite extensions, according to the center.

Wisconsin lawmakers haven’t passed any measures addressing conditions at the youth prison since word of the investigation broke a year ago. Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch and Democratic state Sen. LaTonya Johnson began circulating a bill Tuesday that would require prison guards to report child abuse to law enforcement in response to the prison allegations.

Rep. Michael Schraa, chairman of the Assembly’s corrections committee, didn’t immediately return a message. The state Senate doesn’t have a corrections committee; the equivalent body is the judiciary committee, led by Republican Van Wanggaard. His aide, Scott Kelly, said Wanggaard wants to see the FBI’s findings before drawing conclusions but is growing more frustrated with the agency for not releasing any information.

Trump orders construction of border wall and punishment for sanctuary cities

President Donald Trump on Jan. 25 ordered construction of a U.S.-Mexican border “wall” and punishment for cities shielding illegal immigrants while mulling restoring a CIA secret detention program.

Also, a draft executive order seen by Reuters that Trump is expected to sign in the coming days would block the entry of refugees from war-torn Syria and suspend the entry of any immigrants from Muslim-majority Middle Eastern and African countries Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Yemen while permanent rules are studied.

Trump’s executive orders on Wednesday signaled a tough action toward the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, whom he already has threatened to deport.

In a move critics called a slight to the integrity of American democracy, Trump also said he would seek a “major investigation” into what he believes was voter fraud in the November election, despite overwhelming consensus among state officials, election experts and politicians that it is rare in the United States.

“We are going to restore the rule of law in the United States,” Trump told an audience that included relatives of people killed by illegal immigrants at the Department of Homeland Security after signing two executive orders.

The directives ordered the construction of a multibillion-dollar “wall” along the roughly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, moved to strip federal funding from sanctuary states and cities that harbor illegal immigrants and expanded the force of U.S. anti-immigration agents.

His plans prompted an outcry from immigrant advocates and Democratic lawmakers who said Trump was jeopardizing the rights and freedoms of millions of people while treating Mexico as an enemy, not an ally, and soiling America’s historic reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants of all stripes.

“The border wall is about political theater at the expense of civil liberties,” said Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition immigrant advocacy group.

“It is not national security policy. Border communities are among the safest in the nation, and patrolling them with tens of thousands of heavily armed, poorly trained, unaccountable agents puts lives at risks. This will turn these communities into de facto military zones,” Ramirez said.

The White House said the wall would stem the flow of drugs, crime and illegal immigration into the United States.

The immigration crackdown has sparked fear among  “dreamers,” whose parents brought them to the United States illegally and who received deportation relief and work permits from President Barack Obama’s administration.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said “dreamers” should not be worried. “We’re focused on physical security of the border, we’re focused on those who are coming to do us harm from terrorist states and things like that,” he told MSNBC.

TENSION WITH MEXICO

Trump’s actions could further test relations with Mexico.

Trump’s policies, including his demand that the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada be renegotiated or scrapped, have put Mexico’s government on the defensive. Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto are due to meet next week.

Pena Nieto said he “regrets and disapproves” of the push by Trump to build a new wall along the border.

Officials in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Denver, Washington, San Francisco and Seattle offer some forms of protection to illegal immigrants. Billions of dollars in federal aid to those cities, often governed by Democrats, could be at risk under Trump’s move.

Trump said construction on the wall would start within months, with planning starting immediately and he said Mexico would pay back to the United States “100 percent” of the costs. Mexican officials repeatedly said that is not going to happen.

The cost, nature and extent of the wall remain unclear. Trump last year put the cost at “probably $8 billion,” although other estimates are higher, and he said the wall would span 1,000 miles because of the terrain of the border.

END OF ‘CATCH AND RELEASE’

Trump’s directives would end the practice known by critics as “catch and release” in which authorities apprehend illegal immigrants on U.S. territory but do not immediately detain or deport them.

The directives also include hiring 5,000 more U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

They also create more detention space along the southern border to make it easier to detain and deport people.

Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg, Roberta Rampton, Jonathan Landay, Mark Hosenball, Doina Chiacu, Andy Sullivan, Mohammad Zargham, Eric Beech and Susan Heavey; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee to boycott Trump’s inauguration. She explains why

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee will not attend the inauguration of Donald J. Trump on Jan. 20. She explains why:

Inaugurations are celebratory events, a time to welcome the peaceful transition of power and honor the new administration. On Jan. 20, I will not be celebrating or honoring an incoming president who rode racism, sexism, xenophobia and bigotry to the White House.

Donald Trump ran one of the most divisive and prejudiced campaigns in modern history.

He began his campaign by insulting Mexican immigrants, pledging to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and then spent a year and a half denigrating communities of color and normalizing bigotry.

He called women “pigs,” stoked Islamophobia and attacked a Gold Star family.

He mocked a disabled reporter and appealed to people’s worst instincts.

I cannot in good conscience attend an inauguration that would celebrate this divisive approach to governance.

After the election, many hoped the president-elect would turn toward unifying our country. Instead he has shown us that he will utilize the same tools of division he employed on the campaign trail as our nation’s commander-in-chief.

We need look no further than the team he is assembling to find signals that the era of Trump will be one of chaos and devastation for our communities.

The president-elect has named Steve Bannon,  a white nationalist as his chief strategist. He has nominated U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions to the office of Attorney General, despite his long career of opposition to civil and human rights.

And in perhaps the most damning sign of the chaos to come, the president-elect has expedited the process to repeal the Affordable Care Act and make America sick again.

To make matters worse, after the intelligence community reported Russian interference in our election, Donald Trump frequently and forcefully defended Vladimir Putin.

He insulted senior intelligence officials in order to preserve his reputation and disguise the truth.

The American people will never forget that when a foreign government violated our democracy, Donald Trump chose the interests of another nation over our own.

Donald Trump has proven that his administration will normalize the most extreme fringes of the Republican Party.

On Inauguration Day, I will not be celebrating. I will be organizing and preparing for resistance.

Ahead of hearing, ACLU releases analysis of Sessions’ civil liberties record

The American Civil Liberties Union this week released its analysis of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions’ record on civil liberties issues ahead of the Jan. 10-11 confirmation hearing. Sessions is Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

The ACLU report examines Sessions’ handling of voting rights, police reform, immigration, mass incarceration, religious liberty, LGBT equality, privacy and surveillance, torture, abortion and sexual assault issues.

“The American people deserve a full vetting of Sen. Jeff Sessions’ record if he is to become the nation’s top law enforcement official,” ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero said in a press statement.

He continued, “If the Senate does their job well, Congress and the American public will know if Sessions is the most qualified person to be the 84th attorney general of the United States of America. All Americans must have confidence that the highest law enforcement official in the country will protect them from discrimination and injustice. Trump and Sessions’ commitment to ‘law and order’ must embrace justice.”

This is from the introduction to the ACLU analysis on Sessions’ record:

More than thirty years ago, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, was in a similar situation as he will be on January 10 when he goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing. Tapped by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship in 1986, Sessions sat before the very same committee for his previous confirmation hearing. Things did not go well.

Witnesses accused Sessions, then the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Alabama, of repeatedly making racially insensitive and racist remarks. Thomas Figures — a former assistant U.S. attorney in Mobile, Alabama, who worked for Sessions — told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his former boss said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was okay until he learned members smoked pot. Sessions said the comment wasn’t serious. Figures, an African-American man, also alleged that Sessions called him “boy” and told him “to be careful what you say to white folks.” Sessions denied this, too. 

But Figures wasn’t alone. Visiting Mobile, Alabama, from Washington, D.C., a Justice Department lawyer heard Sessions call the ACLU “un-American” and “communist-inspired.” He also heard Sessions opine that ACLU and the NAACP “did more harm than good when they were trying to force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them.” Sessions said he didn’t recall saying that but admitted he could be “loose with my tongue” at the office. Not surprisingly, a civil rights coalition of over 160 groups and members of the Alabama Legislature separately opposed the Sessions’ nomination and asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote no on the young attorney from Hybart, Alabama. In a bipartisan vote, committee members refused to confirm Sessions, making him just the second judicial nominee in 49 years to be denied confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee at that time.

Sessions recovered well. In 1994, he was elected as Alabama’s attorney general. Two years later, the people of Alabama sent him to the U.S. Senate. He’s never lost a reelection campaign since, and now he’s poised to become the head of the Department of Justice. But the same concerns that doomed Sessions’ shot at becoming a federal judge three decades ago continue to stalk him today, only they have been made more troubling when you add Sessions’ Senate record to the mix.

The ACLU as a matter of long-standing policy does not support or oppose candidates for elected or appointed office. However, questions regarding police reform, voting rights, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice reform, Muslims’ rights, racial justice, LGBT rights, women’s rights, privacy rights, torture, and abortion rights must be asked of and answered by Jeff Sessions if the Senate is to be discharged of its duty and if Americans are to be fully informed of how the nominee is to serve as the nation’s highest law enforcement officer. The attorney general must be an individual who will steadfastly enforce the U.S. Constitution and protect the civil rights and liberties of all Americans equally.

On the Web

The report can be found at https://www.aclu.org/report/report-confirmation-sessions.

Miami officers fired for ‘jokes’ about target practice in primarily black neighborhoods

Three police officers were fired for making comments on a group chat about using Miami’s primarily black neighborhoods for target practice.

Officers Kevin Bergnes, Miguel Valdes and Bruce Alcin were fired on Dec. 23, after an internal affairs investigation concluded that they violated department policies, said the Miami Herald, citing documents it obtained.

The remarks angered local civil rights activists keeping tabs on a department that is currently scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of excessive force.

“It’s indicative of the casual conversations and comments that young and even more seasoned police officers are used to making without a lot of repercussions,” said Julia Dawson, an activist who has been part of law enforcement oversight panels in Miami.

The Miami police department confirmed that officers Bergnes, Valdes and Alcin were fired, but did not explain the reasons behind the dismissals.

In a statement, Chief Rodolfo Llanes said an internal affairs investigation found the officers’ actions “inconsistent with the mission and values of our department.”

Attorney Stephan Lopez, who represents the three officers, told The Associated Press that his clients were joking and that the comments were taken out of context. He said Alcin is African-American and Valdes has a black grandfather.

“They wanted to make an example out of this. But they made an example of the wrong people,” Lopez said. “These guys didn’t shoot anybody. They were clearly joking around. They are kids. You don’t terminate them the day before Christmas Eve.”

The incident happened June 30, when the three officers responded to other rookie colleagues’ questions about shooting ranges in a WhatsApp chat they often used to communicate, the paper said. According to documents obtained by the Herald, the officers-in-training shared department information on that thread.

It said the documents show Bergnes sarcastically suggested the friend looking for a shooting range try a Bank of America, adding “they’ll even give you some cash.” He then suggested Model City — the police district that includes Liberty City and handles the bulk of the city’s shootings — as another location.

Valdes suggested a particular intersection in the Overtown community, according to the paper. It added that Alcin followed up, saying Valdes “wouldn’t understand” until he’s worked there.

The next day, an officer warned them that their words were offensive even though she didn’t think they were racist. “Your words can come back to bite you,” she allegedly wrote.

A sergeant learned of the conversation and ordered one officer to apologize. He also wrote a memo to a lieutenant about the matter, according to the Herald. Internal affairs began an investigation and concluded on Dec. 19 that they broke social media, courtesy and responsibility rules, the paper said.

Lopez, the attorney, said it’s too early to say whether he will file a lawsuit for wrongful termination or negotiate to get their jobs back. The officers were still on probation after being sworn in earlier this year.

Javier Ortiz, president of the police union, said he didn’t agree with the “joking texts” but that it wasn’t enough for dismissal. He said the city manager would “rather focus on text messages than the senseless killings and violent crime.”

The incident came months after the city of Miami agreed to go under supervision of the U.S. Justice Department to reform its policing after a series of police shootings from 2008 to 2011. The agreement followed a report that questioned 33 police shootings, including seven black men and teenagers who were killed in a short time.

 

NAACP: Block Sessions for attorney general

NAACP president and CEO Cornell William Brooks issued the following statement opposing the nomination of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general:

America yet stands at the beginning of presidential administration but also in the middle of a Twitter age civil rights movement based on old divisions.

U.S. Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is among the worst possible nominees for attorney general amid some of the worst times for civil rights in recent memory.

Following a divisive presidential campaign, hate crimes rising, police videos sickening the stomach while quickening the conscience, protesters marching in the streets and politicians mouthing the myth of voter fraud while denying the reality of voter suppression, Senator Sessions is precisely the wrong man to lead the Justice Department.

The NAACP, as the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, opposes the nomination of Senator Sessions to become U.S. attorney general for the following reasons:

• a record on voting rights that is unreliable at best and hostile at worse;

• a failing record on other civil rights;

• a record of racially offensive remarks and behavior;

• and dismal record on criminal justice reform issues.

Voting Rights

Senator Sessions supported the re-authorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2006, but called the bill “a piece of intrusive legislation” just months earlier. Sessions has consistently voted in favor of strict voter ID laws that place extra burdens on the poor and residents of color, and drive voter suppression across the country. When the Supreme Court struck down federal protections in 2012 that prevented thousands of discriminatory state laws from taking effect since 1965, Sessions declared it was “a good thing for the South.” As a prosecutor in 1985, Sessions maliciously prosecuted a former aide to Martin Luther King for helping senior citizens file absentee ballots in Alabama.

Rather than enforcing voting rights protections, Senator Sessions has instead made a career of seeking to dismantle them. When Shelby County v. Holder gutted the protections of the VRA, Senator Sessions cheered. For decades, he has pursued the rare and mystical unicorn of voter fraud, while turning a blind eye to the ever-growing issue of voter suppression.

While Senator Sessions’ historical record on civil rights remains one of dismay, it is his unrepentant stance against the vote that remains our issue. The threat of voter suppression is not a historical but current challenge. At least 10 times in the past 10 months, the NAACP defended voting rights against coordinated campaigns by legislators targeting African-American voters in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and many other states.

While the NAACP could gain the assistance of the Justice Department in fighting back against voter suppression, a Sessions-led DOJ would likely lead to the exact opposite.During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, then-Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach’s commitment to democracy allowed him to help write the VRA. Today, our nation stands on the verge of selecting an AG who has never shown the slightest commitment to enforcing the protections Katzenbach and others wrote into law. 

How can our communities who have born the both historical and current brunt of the attacks on the right to vote, sit idly by while an enemy to the vote is now given the responsibility of enforcing this right? The simple answer is that we can’t. 

Other Civil Rights

Since 1997, Senator Sessions has received an F every year on the NAACP’s federal legislative civil rights report cards. He’s voted against our policy positions nearly 90 percent of the time. Senator Sessions has repeatedly supported lawsuits and attempts to overturn desegregation while shamelessly voting against federal Hate Crime legislation four times from 2000 to 2009.

Notwithstanding, he has also repeatedly voted against the Violence Against Women Act that expanded protection for victims of domestic violence and repeatedly stood on the wrong side of immigration and LGBT issues.

Racial Insensitivity

During his failed 1986 federal judgeship hearing, four DOJ attorneys and colleagues of Senator Sessions testified that he made several racist statements. J. Gerald Hebert testified that Sessions had referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as “un-American” and “Communist inspired” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.

Additional accusations of racist behavior were attributed to Senator Sessions by Thomas Figures, an African American Assistant U.S. Attorney, who testified that Sessions said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions later said that the comment was not serious, but did apologize for it. Mr. Figures also testified that on one occasion, Senator Session railed against civil rights cases, threw a file on the table and called him the derogatory racist term “boy,” and later advised Figures to watch what he said to white people.

Criminal Justice Reform

In a time of expanding protests against the scourge of police brutality, Senator Sessions stands on opposite ground. He has repeated stood against the consent decree, a main tool of the DOJ to reel in racist and unaccountable police departments. In a report by the Alabama Policy Institute, Senator Sessions called consent decrees: “One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees. Consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end run around the democratic process.”

While under the administration of President Barack Obama, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division made investigating police departments charged with racism and police brutality a key focus by intervening in high-profile cases in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland to impose consent decrees and reforms to correct misbehavior and the violation of citizen’s civil rights.

Senator Sessions would become the Attorney General under a president who supports nationalizing the racist and disproven “stop and frisk,” strategy. Both Sessions and the incoming president are supporters of the DOD 1033 program which allows police department’s access to surplus military equipment including tanks, armored vehicles, grenade launchers and more. He also opposes the removal of mandatory minimum sentences and blocked efforts to reduce nonviolent drug sentencing despite wide bi-partisan support for doing so. If not enough, Senator Sessions has repeatedly voted against safe, sane, and sensible measures to stem the tide of gun violence.

Given that these are issues our nation the attorney general is sworn to protect and enforce his nomination represents an ongoing and dangerous threat to our civicbirthrights –particularly, and the right to vote.

We call upon the Senate to reject Sessions and for President-elect Donald J. Trump to replace Sessions with a nominee with a record of inclusion and commitment to protecting the civil rights of the American majority.

The NAACP does not believe that an election where the incoming president lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes represents a mandate to overhaul the America of the Majority. The vote remains the most important resource in making democracy real for all people.

As we have since 1909, the NAACP will continue to stand against Senator Sessions and any attempts to unravel the progress earned through the blood, sweat and tears of our people to enjoy the same rights under law as all Americans.”

Founded Feb. 12. 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest, largest and most widely recognized grassroots–based civil rights organization. Its more than half-million members and supporters throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.

President signs bill to review civil rights-era cold cases

Racially motivated, civil rights-era killings that are now cold cases will get fresh looks under legislation signed by President Barack Obama.

Obama signed the bill earlier this month. It indefinitely extends a 2007 law that calls for a full accounting of race-based deaths, many of which had been closed for decades. The law was set to expire next year.

The bill is named after Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy killed in 1955 after whistling at a white woman. His killers were acquitted of murder but later admitted their crimes to a reporter and couldn’t be retried.

Many other similar cases were poorly investigated and prosecutions were rare.

The law provides federal resources to local jurisdictions to look into the cases and extends the time span of cases to be considered to Dec. 31, 1979. It will also require the Justice Department and the FBI to consult with civil rights organizations, universities and others who had been gathering evidence on the deaths.

There has so far been one conviction as more than 100 cases from the 1960s and earlier have been reviewed. New racially suspicious deaths have been identified for investigation.

North Carolina GOP Sen. Richard Burr and Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill sponsored the bill in the Senate.

In the House, the bill was negotiated by civil rights icon John Lewis, D-Ga.; John Conyers, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee; and Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

Justice Dept. sues Virginia county over denied permit for mosque

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Culpeper County, Virginia, alleging the county violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 when it denied a sewage permit application to the Islamic Center of Culpeper.

The Justice Department said denying the permit effectively preventing the ICC from building a small mosque on land that it had purchased in the county.  The land is located in a zoning district where religious land use is permitted by right.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, alleges the county imposed a substantial burden on the Muslim congregation’s exercise of religion and discriminated against the ICC based on religion when it refused to grant a “pump and haul” permit to allow the ICC to transport sewage from the ICC’s property to a point of disposal.

The county had told the ICC that such a permit was necessary because its soil, like much soil in the area, could not support a septic system.  Since 1992, the county has considered 26 applications and never denied a pump and haul permit to a commercial or religious use prior to the ICC.

“The Constitution and federal law specifically protect the freedom of religious communities to establish houses of worship,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.  “The Justice Department will continue to work tirelessly to protect every person’s right to assemble for religious exercise.”

“Religious liberty is a fundamental right in our country and this case seeks to uphold that right,” added U.S. Attorney John P. Fishwick Jr. of the Western District of Virginia.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains multiple provisions prohibiting religious discrimination and protecting against unjustified burdens on religion exercise.

Proposed interstate expansion prompts federal civil rights investigation

The U.S. Department of Transportation will initiate an investigation of alleged civil rights violations related to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s proposal to expand I-70.

The state DOT wants to expand the interstate through the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods in North Denver.

The federal decision is a response to a complaint filed Nov. 15 by Earthjustice on behalf of the Colorado Latino Forum, Cross Community Coalition and Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association. The complaint alleges the plan to triple I-70’s width would result in “disparate and severe environmental and economic impacts” on the predominantly Latino communities.

CDOT committed to moving forward with the expansion plan in May, but has yet to issue its formal record of its decision.

The agency, which receives federal funding for the I-70 and other projects, is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from taking actions that have even an unintentional discriminatory impact on citizens on the basis of their race, color, or national origin.

“We are looking forward to making the case that CDOT’s proposal magnifies the already discriminatory impact that I-70 has had on these neighborhoods for decades, leading to reduced life expectancies and the highest rates of pollution-related illnesses in the city,” said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney at Earthjustice who represents the neighborhood advocates.

Interstate 70 was built through the area in the 1960s over the objections of neighborhood organizations and business owners.

Fifty years later, the neighborhood is the most polluted in Colorado.

Residents have significantly higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma and asthma-related emergency room visits than the rest of Denver, according to EarthJustice.

The expansion of I-70, adding toll lanes and eliminating access to the highway from the neighborhood, would worsen environmental and health consequences for this community, the EarthJustice complaint states.

It would result in:

• Increased exposure to freeway-related air pollution and expose residents to airborne dust from existing Superfund sites that are contaminated by lead and arsenic.

• Disruption to the social fabric of the neighborhood and its economic vitality by destroying at least 56 homes, 13 commercial buildings and the Swansea Elementary School playground. About 200 people would be displaced by the expansion.

Claim against Chiquita for funding Colombian death squads to go to trial in U.S.

After almost a decade of litigation, victims of Colombian paramilitary death squads funded by Chiquita are moving forward in a U.S. lawsuit against the banana giant.

This week, federal judge Kenneth Marra rejected Chiquita’s argument that the case should be heard in Colombia rather than the United States. This ruling could clear the way for the historic case to advance toward trial.

In 2007, EarthRights International and other co-counsel, filed a class action suit against Chiquita Brands International on behalf of the families of thousands of villagers, labor leaders and community organizers murdered by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, a paramilitary terrorist organization.

The suit alleges that Chiquita made illegal, concealed payments to the AUC for years, totaling at least $1.6 million.

The lawsuit also alleges that the AUC shipped arms and drugs through Chiquita’s ports and on Chiquita boats.

In March 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty to the federal crime of funding a designated terrorist organization and paid a fine.

“Chiquita profited from its relationship with the AUC and paid the Department of Justice $25 million, but the victims of their conduct have received nothing — it is past time Chiquita compensates the families in Colombia,” said Marco Simons, ERI’s general counsel.

“We are pleased that the court agreed that ‘the United States has a strong interest in monitoring and deterring unethical and illegal conduct of American corporations in supporting foreign terrorist organizations.’ The plaintiffs sued Chiquita here in its home court where Chiquita will get a fair hearing on the merits, something the company seems to have been trying to delay for a decade,” said co-counsel Agnieszka Fryszman of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.

Chiquita has pulled out of Colombia and now has no operations or assets there. Still, Chiquita argued that it was more “convenient” to litigate in Colombia than the United States.

The court rejected this claim, finding Colombia to be an inadequate forum in light of serious security risks for plaintiffs and their lawyers.

“Our clients chose to litigate in the United States because it is the only forum where they can litigate safely and where they can be sure that Chiquita will pay,” said Simons.

The plaintiffs also sued several former Chiquita executives who were allegedly responsible for making, approving and concealing the payments to the AUC.

On June 1, Marra ruled the claims against those executives, including claims for torture and extrajudicial killing under the Torture Victim Protection Act, could continue. That case now moves into the discovery phase.

In addition to ERI, the plaintiffs are represented by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC and Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP and attorneys Judith Brown Chomsky, Arturo Carrillo and John DeLeon.

The case, Doe v. Chiquita Brands International, No. 08-MD-80421, is joined with several lawsuits against Chiquita proceeding before Marra.­