ACLU Wins Expanded Protections for Needle Exchange Participants

Affiliate: ACLU of Connecticut
June 1, 2006 12:00 am

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BRIDGEPORT, CT – The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed a ruling by a federal court expanding protections to needle exchange program participants. The court expanded the scope of a previous order, which prohibited the Bridgeport Police Department from harassing or arresting individuals who possess needles, ruling that other forms of injection equipment are protected as well.

“The message of this much-needed ruling should be heard nationwide,” said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “Public health should be placed above punitive posturing. Law enforcement should be chiefly concerned with the public welfare, which is markedly increased by respecting the rights of needle exchange participants and acknowledging the vital importance of these exchanges to public safety.”

Today’s ruling expands the scope of a previous court order issued in 2001 in the case Doe v. Bridgeport Police Department. Based on the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure, the 2001 order blocked the Bridgeport Police Department (BPD) “from searching, stopping, arresting, punishing or penalizing…any person based solely upon that person’s possession of up to thirty sets of injection equipment.”

But as U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall, who presided over both the initial case and the recent hearing, said during a recent courtroom session, “My order may well have been written in invisible ink.”

While Judge Hall expanded protection to include general injection equipment, such as cotton balls and items used to heat drugs, and chastised the BPD for failure to diligently adhere to the initial order, the court denied the ACLU’s motion to hold the BPD in contempt of court.

Testimony introduced in the case documented repeated instances of police threatening, arresting and assaulting individuals based solely on possession of injection equipment or participation in a local needle exchange program. Furthermore, police routinely confiscated syringes and needle exchange participants’ identification cards – thereby disallowing effective participation in the exchange program and directly endangering the public’s safety.

The Bridgeport Syringe Exchange has been in operation for over a dozen years. The program, whose members are issued identification cards, dispenses clean needles in return for used ones and also makes available materials, such as citric acid, that decrease the dangers of infection associated with intravenous drug use. Just as importantly, the exchange serves as a bridge to treatment for its many participants by connecting them to other public health services and encouraging them to enter drug treatment programs.

“The police can contribute to public health and safety by supporting efforts that engage injection drug users in disease prevention programs that simultaneously serve as conduits to treatment for addiction,” said Robert Heimer, Ph.D., an associate professor at Yale School of Public Health and a nationally renowned expert on the emergence and prevention of infectious diseases. “In the long run, this is the only reliable means to decrease addiction at the community level.”

Every scientific study of needle exchange programs has concluded that access to sterile injection equipment is a proven way to reduce the spread of deadly, infectious blood-borne diseases. Organizations supporting increased sterile syringe access include the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Health (NIH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Needle exchange programs have been found to reduce HIV transmission by more than 30 percent, according to the NIH, and to increase the likelihood of injection drug users to enter treatment programs by five times, according to a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.

Additionally, the CDC reported that through 2003, 26 percent of AIDS cases in the United States among people age 13 or older arose from exposure to injection drug use. Among women, a staggering 61 percent of AIDS cases stemmed from injection drug use.

The ruling was issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. The BPD and its Acting Chief, Anthony Armeno, were defendants in the case.

The court’s ruling expanding protection to include general injection equipment can be viewed online at:
www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/harm/25717lgl20060531.html

Additional background on needle exchanges and their contribution to public health is available at:
www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/harm/10850res20060531.html

The ACLU’s motion documenting BPD abuses and seeking to expand the scope of needle exchange protection may be viewed online at: www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/harm/25610lgl20050928.html

A post-trial brief reviewing the evidence introduced at the trial may be viewed at: www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/harm/25613lgl20060203.html

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