PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today alleging that Montgomery County violated the ACLU-PA’s First Amendment rights by denying ACLU lawyers access to people held in the county jail. Since mid-March, officials at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility have barred lawyers from the ACLU and those working in cooperation with the organization from meeting with people in the jail, claiming that the meetings can only occur with court documentation or a letter that establishes a formal relationship between the attorneys and those they are meeting with.
According to the lawsuit, the ACLU is not aware of this requirement being asked of other lawyers who visit people held at the jail. Today’s court filing notes that the ACLU-PA has clashed with Montco officials recently and accuses the county of engaging in retaliation for the organization’s advocacy. Last year, the ACLU was publicly critical of the county commissioners for firing the county’s top two public defenders after they filed a brief in a case about cash bail, and the civil liberties group filed a class action lawsuit in January against the county for excessively charging people for court costs.
The county also recently denied the ACLU-PA’s Right To Know request for its jail admissions logs, which show why people are detained at the jail.
“Jails already operate behind walls and razor wire. Montco officials are trying to make it impossible for our team to investigate ongoing constitutional violations in the county’s criminal legal system,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “This is not about us or our organization. This is about the people who are held at the jail, who want to report their experiences to us, in the hope that we can help vindicate their constitutional rights.”
The complaint filed in federal court today says that attorneys from the ACLU of Pennsylvania and those working with them held several dozen virtual visits with people held in the jail between October 2020 and March 2021. Then, on March 5, an ACLU-affiliated lawyer had a scheduled meeting cancelled by county officials without notice or explanation. Another lawyer had their online account deactivated on March 11, and when that attorney asked a jail administrator for an explanation, Brian Kniezewski, the assistant director of inmate services at the jail, told the lawyer of the documentation requirement.
The last meeting between someone at the jail and an attorney affiliated with the ACLU occurred on March 15. Afterwards, Kniezewski sent several emails to ACLU-connected lawyers informing them that their meetings would be cancelled without the documents demanded by the county. The complaint filed today contrasts the county’s practice of cancelling visits by ACLU attorneys with other lawyers who have been allowed to meet with detained persons without providing the documents.
On March 23, the ACLU sent a letter to jail administrators warning them that their refusal to allow attorney visits violated the constitution. The administrators never responded.
“The lack of transparency at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility is alarming,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Neither the DOC nor any of the 66 other counties impose such unreasonable restrictions on the right of ACLU lawyers to meet with incarcerated individuals, which raises the question, ‘What are they trying to hide?’”
The lawsuit argues that the county is in violation of the ACLU-PA’s First Amendment free speech rights and the due process rights of people held at the jail. The complaint also states that the constitution forbids the county from engaging in retaliation against ACLU attorneys for engaging in constitutionally protected activity.
The case, ACLU of Pennsylvania v. Montgomery County et al., was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The ACLU of Pennsylvania is acting as both plaintiff and co-counsel and is represented by Witold J. Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and John A. Freedman, Janine Lopez, Andrew Tutt, and Leslie Bailey of Arnold & Porter.
A copy of the complaint filed today is available at aclupa.org/MCCF.