ACLU Sues Governor in California Supreme Court Over Pandemic Conditions

Lawsuits Demand Halt in ICE Transfers and Reductions in Jail and Juvenile Hall Populations

April 25, 2020
ACLU SoCal Communications & Media Advocacy,, 626-755-4129 (cell)

Ed Sifuentes, ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties,, 619-501-3408

SAN DIEGO – The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California and American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties filed an emergency lawsuit yesterday in California Supreme Court calling on the governor and attorney general to stop transferring individuals to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A second emergency lawsuit, also filed yesterday, with the national ACLU and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP as additional co-counsels, calls on the governor and attorney general to drastically reduce the populations of county jails and juvenile facilities statewide during this public health emergency.

Conditions at ICE detention centers and county incarceration facilities – where bunk beds are commonly three-feet or less apart and bathrooms are shared by large numbers of people – make it impossible to maintain the social distancing and hygienic standards that are the only defenses against the spread of COVID-19.

“It is not just those confined to jails, detention centers, and youth facilities who are in danger,” said Peter J. Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU SoCal. “Once the virus gets inside, the regular movement of staff and visitors in and out means that walls and razor wire can neither slow nor stop the viral spread to communities at large.”

Conditions at these facilities, including those housing juveniles, violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments;” and the Fourteenth Amendment that guarantees due process rights, as well as other federal and state laws.

Both lawsuits were filed on behalf of organizations that advocate for the rights of people in the criminal justice system. The ICE transfers lawsuit was filed on behalf of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ), and the Southern California chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA SoCal). The jails and juvenile facilities lawsuit was filed on behalf of CACJ, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC).

“Californians cannot spare a day, or even an hour, to take the actions sought in this petition,” said NACDL Vice President Martín Sabelli. “Protecting lives is a constitutional, moral, and humanitarian duty. As lawyers constitutionally obligated to advocate for our clients in a courtroom when their freedom is a stake, we have no less a duty to advocate for them when their lives are at stake. We are all in this together.”

Photos taken inside California jails to show how it would be impossible to maintain the recommended social distancing were submitted as parts of declarations in the case.

The vast majority of ICE transfers during the pandemic have been from state prisons and county jails. And people released as part of efforts to reduce the populations at prisons and jails have been sent to ICE detention centers. But these crowded centers, with a severe lack of proper hygiene and cleaning products, are rife for virus outbreaks. Detainees at several of the facilities have gotten so desperate that they’ve gone on hunger strikes.

The jails and juvenile facilities lawsuit notes that during the pandemic, some reductions in populations have been accomplished but not enough. The lawsuit calls on the state attorney general to order county sheriffs to evaluate jail capacity based on social distancing directives and to release people based on various factors, such as medical vulnerability, non-violent pre-trial charges and being within six months of release.

The lawsuit also calls for youths with minor offenses be released, especially if they are in institutions that are no longer providing education and other rehabilitative programming.

“Public health experts and even corrections officials have been clear: Dramatically reducing incarcerated populations is critical to saving thousands of lives, both in jails and in their surrounding communities,” said Carl Takei, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality. “Governor Newsom has acknowledged this reality, but if he does not take dramatic steps to decarcerate, he will be to blame for the lives lost senselessly.”

Read the lawsuit on ICE transfers here:

Read the lawsuit on jails and juvenile facilities here: