ACLU History: Fighting Police Misconduct

September 1, 2010
Despite a growing professionalism, a culture of lawlessness persisted in police departments across the country throughout much of the 20th century, and many in law enforcement acted with impunity when it came to pursuing and arresting criminal suspects. It was most often the poor and people of color who suffered from police mistreatment and abuse.

The ACLU's campaigns against police misconduct, which intensified during the 1950s and 60s, made significant contributions to the civil rights movement. After all, if police could illegally search, arrest, detain and brutalize people with impunity, then they could easily put an end to the growing demonstrations for equal treatment and a just society. Throughout this period, the ACLU's network of affiliates – on the frontlines in cities where incidents could be documented and cases filed – played an important role. Examples include:

Curbing Conduct That 'Shocks the Conscience' in Rochin v. California
The Rochin case arose in 1949, when three Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputies forcibly entered the apartment of suspected drug dealer Antonio Rochin, and then twice forcibly tried to obtain suspected drugs from his body: first by hand at his apartment and later by stomach pump at a hospital. The ACLU represented Rochin all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in 1952 that conduct which 'shocks the conscience' is unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Advising Citizens on What to Do 'If You Are Arrested'
In addition to seeking systemic reforms of the criminal justice system, the ACLU sought to educate people about the scope and limitation of police powers. In 1955, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a simple pamphlet entitled 'If You Are Arrested,' which informed people of their rights not to incriminate themselves and to have a lawyer present during questioning. In the first weeks of its publication, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) distributed more than 40,000 copies in New York City alone, and other ACLU affiliates across the country quickly created their own versions. The pamphlet became the precursor for the ACLU's modern-day 'bust card.'

Exposing 'Secret Detention'
In the early 1950s, the ACLU of Illinois began a campaign against illegal detention by local police and other law enforcement agencies in the state. In 1959, the organization published a study entitled Secret Detention by the Chicago Police, which exposed the police practice of arresting suspects and holding them for 17 or more hours, moving them out of reach of attorneys and beating them in hopes of eliciting a confession. The report had an enormous national impact, and copies were requested by police departments across the country as well as by Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas and Tom Clark. The report was considered influential in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in the next decade, Escobedo v. Illinois, which held that the police cannot continue to interrogate a suspect after he has indicated that he wants to consult with his attorney.


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