Local lawyers are responding to ACLU

April 30, 2012
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A little more than a year ago, Miriam Aukerman was faced with staffing the region’s first American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan office with volunteer attorneys. Back then, there was a tremendous need for pro-bono legal assistance for an agency that serves 14 West Michigan counties — but not so much now.

“I would say it’s going incredibly well. The office has been really well received by the legal community. There is a lot of interest in our work and a lot of interest in being involved from attorneys at all levels — newer attorneys as well as those with great experience. They are a tremendous resource to us,” said Aukerman, who became the ACLU’s regional staff attorney in December 2010.

The office has had a lawyers committee in place for Barry, Ionia, Kent, Mecosta, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo, Osceola and Ottawa counties. But it now has 14 attorneys, the most it has ever had.

“We’ve added a number of lawyers to that committee who bring additional skills and perspectives. That’s been exciting because that’s been a committee that has been together for a long time. It’s been really great to have additional people join that,” she said.

When Aukerman arrived in Grand Rapids, she had to establish a similar committee that would cover civil-liberty matters in Allegan, Berrien, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties. And she has done that: Seven attorneys in the southwestern portion of the region have volunteered their time and talents.

“That has really enhanced our ability to work there. So we brought a lot of lawyers in for an event and then developed what’s been a really terrific group of lawyers to work on civil liberty issues there. That community is similar to the one here in that it meets monthly and helps us with civil liberty issues and really provides a local perspective on issues when we have something that arises,” said Aukerman, who earned her law degree from New York University Law School and was a Keasbey Scholar at Oxford University before joining Legal Aid of West Michigan.

In addition to growing one committee and staffing another, Aukerman said quite a few lawyers in various practices have stepped forward to contribute — some to litigate, others to provide direction. She said her goal is to establish lengthy ongoing relationships with the attorneys who pitch in.

“We try to develop a long-term relationship with them, so when they start volunteering as a junior associate at a firm and grow into being a partner, over that course of time they take on an increasing responsibility in their volunteer work with the ACLU,” she said. “So a lot of it has been developing those relationships. It’s going really well and I’m very pleased with that.”

The new office has filed a half-dozen cases so far. One low-level misdemeanor that drew Aukerman’s attention last year was a case that some might have thought shouldn’t have gone forward. Kyle DeWitt was fishing for rock bass last year when he caught an out-of-season small-mouth bass. A Department of Natural Resources agent caught the 19-year-old with the illegal small-mouth bass, and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.

“He thought he had a rock bass, but apparently he didn’t,” said Aukerman.

Even though DeWitt pleaded not guilty, an Ionia District Court judge fined him $215 and ordered him to pay the fine by 5 p.m. that day or spend three days in jail. DeWitt, who recently had lost his job, said he could pay $100 the next day and the remainder the next month, but Judge Raymond Voet refused his offer and had him locked up.

“Given the economy, there simply are people that cannot pay those things off, and certainly not immediately,” said Aukerman.

“What happens then is judges will sentence people to jail if they’re unable to pay, and it’s really a return to debtors prison. An individual who can pay their fine does so and is done, but someone who doesn’t have the resources goes to jail — and sometimes for a long period of time.”

At an emergency hearing the next day, Aukerman argued that the jailing of DeWitt was unconstitutional because he was locked up for being poor. After that hearing, Voet released DeWitt and set a date for his trial.

That was one of six “pay or go to jail” cases the ACLU filed statewide last year. Three took place in the West Michigan region; four criminal-defense attorneys represented the low-income defendants.

“It was a great relationship with the criminal-defense bar in helping us work on those issues,” Aukerman said.

Other cases the local office has been involved with have a higher profile. A recent one occurred a few weeks ago when the ACLU and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two Hispanic Grand Rapids residents, a woman and her son, who Aukerman said were handcuffed and assaulted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents even though they produced drivers’ licenses to validate their identities.

The woman has lived in the country for 22 years and is a legal permanent resident. Her son was born in the U.S. and attends Grand Rapids Community College. The lawsuit contends the agents violated their 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure and their 5th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. The plaintiffs also have accused the immigration agents of assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false arrest and imprisonment.

This case offers an example of an experienced and respected local attorney volunteering to become involved in a case. Rhett Pinsky, a partner at Pinsky, Smith, Fayette & Kennedy LLP, has joined the ACLU and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center as a cooperating counsel in the case. Pinsky has been named a Michigan Super Lawyer for the past six years.

“That is a case where having someone of Rhett’s stature and skills involved are just a tremendous complement to the litigation team. So we’re able to pull together a team of people who have immigration expertise in the Michigan Immigration Right Center, and we’re able to bring in someone with a tremendous litigation background like Rhett Pinsky, and then have the ACLU be involved in it by coordinating the litigation,” said Aukerman.

“It really strengthens our work when we can draw on people with various backgrounds and skills to put together a team like this to make us so much more effective as an organization.”

Another good piece of news is that Aukerman isn’t flying solo anymore in her office on Ionia Avenue. Julia Henshaw, a paralegal student, has come on board and has taken over a lot of the operational duties in the office.

“She is kind of a jack-of-all-trades. She does a lot of the organizational stuff around here in the office and also at our branches, and she does a lot of the non-legal work the ACLU does,” said Aukerman. “She has been wonderful and has been here since the end of last summer.”

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