From January to April North Dakota's Legislature convened in Bismarck to take up more than 800 bills. ACLU of North Dakota's policy director, Jennifer Cook, was in the thick of it all. Cook lobbied full-time during this session to advance and protect North Dakotans' civil liberties.
As North Dakota's 64th Legislative Session fades in the rearview mirror, Cook reflects on the good, bad, and sometimes downright ugly moments of the legislative session in our Legislative Wrap-up Q&A.
Were there bills introduced this session that protected and enhanced North Dakotans' civil liberties?
To highlight just a few, there are three bills that took a good stab at it. ACLU of North Dakota supported these bills and focused our efforts on getting them passed into law.
LGBT Rights: Discrimination is not a North Dakota value
As many of you know, this year's session brought with it the fight for equality for LBGT North Dakotans. We along with our coalition partners, bill sponsors, and other legislators worked hard to ensure LGBT North Dakotans would receive the same legal protections every other North Dakotan receives under the North Dakota Human Rights Act when it comes to employment, housing, public accommodations, and credit and mortgage transactions. However, despite the support of 59% of North Dakota voters, the ND Legislature failed to pass SB 2279. Although the bill did not pass this session, make no mistake about it, ACLU of ND will not give up on its efforts to advance the civil rights of LGBT North Dakotans.
Privacy Prevails: Warrant Required for Drone Searches
With great advancements in technology there also comes great potential for unwarranted encroachment on our fundamental and constitutional right to privacy. Such is the case with law enforcement's use of unmanned aerial vehicles or as they are commonly known, drones. Undeniably North Dakotans benefit when our law enforcement agencies and officers have access to drones to assist them in keeping our communities safe; but the Fourth Amendment requires that law enforcement only intrude on our privacy if there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. HB 1328 requires law enforcement obtain a court ordered warrant before they can use a drone to search private property. Prior to the passage of HB 1328 no such law existed and it was entirely possible that warrantless drone searches could occur.
Criminal Justice Reform: Judges Granted Discretion to Deviate from Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Our criminal justice system is in serious need of reform and there is a nationwide bipartisan effort to overhaul it with the ACLU at the head of this movement. Here in North Dakota, the situation is no different. Our prison population is at an all-time high which costs North Dakota taxpayers millions of dollars. However, evidence shows that incarcerating non-violent offenders does not increase public safety, has very little rehabilitative effect on offenders, and does not reduce recidivism rates.
HB 1030 offered one solution to fix what is ailing our criminal justice system. The bill proposed to allow the court to depart from mandatory minimum sentences where the court finds a manifest injustice would occur given a defendant's background, the nature of the crime, and the likelihood of the defendant's chances of successful rehabilitation. The bill only allowed a court to depart from mandatory minimum sentences if the defendant was convicted of a crime that was non-violent, did not involve sexual misconduct against a minor, and the defendant had not committed a similar offense within a five year period preceding the offense. Although the bill originally applied to a much greater range of criminal offenses, in the end the bill was amended to only apply to drug offenses. The legislature passed the amended version of HB 1030. While we were pleased to see North Dakota's Legislature take steps toward sentencing reform we believe there is much more work to be done in this area. We'll be working hard during the interim and the 2017 session to ensure more reforms of our criminal justice system balance public safety, fiscal responsibility, and civil liberties.
Other notable bills included HB 1470 which passed into law and expands the First Amendment free speech rights of student journalists at public schools and universities, and SB 2150 which also passed into law and enhances university students' Fifth Amendment right to legal representation during university disciplinary hearings.
Along the same line of questioning, were there any bills that restricted civil liberties?
Reproductive Freedom of Human Trafficking Victims: The Gag Amendment on SB 2107
While this session we saw relatively few anti-choice bills (compared to 2013's bounty of anti-choice bills that eventually made their way into law), what we did see in anti-choice legislation was directed at some of the most vulnerable of all North Dakotans: victims of human trafficking.
An amendment prohibiting the use of state funds to counsel or refer human trafficking victims for abortion services made its way onto SB 2107, a bill that codified the uniform law on human trafficking. Together with our partners in reproductive freedom, we worked to educate politicians about the abuses suffered by human trafficking victims at the hands of their traffickers and the need for comprehensive health care for victims of human trafficking which includes unrestricted access to abortion services.
The prohibition on state funds for the performance of abortions remained attached to SB 2107 and passed into law with this restriction. The Gag Amendment was amended to allow state funds to be used for family planning services. While it is not unconstitutional to limit state funds in this manner, we believe the funding restriction is terrible policy because many women who are victims of human trafficking are victims of rape. Victims of human trafficking deserve unfettered access to their legal right to have an abortion.
Overall, this year's legislative session saw a few bumps in the road for civil liberties, but also some remarkable successes. We're already preparing for 2017's legislative session and will be ready to defend and advance North Dakotans' civil liberties when the legislature meets again.