2013 was a good year for civil liberties in Montana. While much work remains on a lot of issues, we're definitely happy to celebrate our victories over the past year.
Privacy - While privacy took a beating at the national level, Montana lawmakers took great steps to protect us here in our state.
New laws passed this year prohibit state and local law enforcement from accessing mobile device location tracking information without a warrant and from using any warrantless drone surveillance footage. Another law prohibits the use of strip and body cavity searches on people arrested for misdemeanor offenses (like traffic stops) unless there is reasonable suspicion to believe the person is concealing a weapon, contraband, or evidence of the commission of a crime.
LGBT Rights - It took more than a decade, but the Montana Legislature finally struck from the books a law criminalizing gay sex. The Montana Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1997, but lawmakers resisted repealing the law. A high point of the debate this year was Rep. Duane Ankeny’s (R-Colstrip) moving tribute to his daughter. The Legislature also amended a state law on domestic violence to protect victims in same-sex relationships.
Also in 2013, three cities began the process of implementing nondiscrimination ordinances to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in their communities. We'll be working to make sure these ordinances pass in Butte, Bozeman and Billings.
Jails and Prisons - The ACLU of Montana scored three major victories for prisoners in 2013.
We settled two lawsuits that sought to alleviate unfair treatment of female prisoners. One, with Montana Women's Prison, ended forced participation in a “treatment” program entitled “Right Living Community” and gives female prisoners the opportunity to attend boot camp, an intensive program that provides male prisoners with educational and training opportunities and the chance for a reduced sentence. Prior to our settlement, male prisoners could attend boot camp, but women could not.
Another, with Missoula County, will give female, juvenile and solitary confinement prisoners at Missoula County Detention Center the opportunity for an hour of outdoor recreation five days a week once the county finishes constructing new yards for them. The county had been giving male prisoners outdoor recreation, but denying it to women and children in violation of their rights to equal protection and humane treatment.
And in September, voters in Custer County approved a ballot issue to fund the construction of a new jail in Miles City. County officials have been transferring prisoners to another county's jail since they agreed with the ACLU of Montana's 2012 assessment that the existing jail was a health and fire hazard and did not provide prisoners with constitutionally protected access to fresh air and sunlight. That jail will be constructed in 2014.
Freedom of Expression - Finally, the Billings School District took a welcome stand against book banning in November, when it rejected a request that Sherman Alexie's novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" be removed from the curriculum. The ACLU of Montana and other free speech advocates supported retaining the book.
While we are grateful for these victories, we know there is still a lot of work to do to protect civil liberties in Montana. Reproductive and voting rights continue to suffer. Prisoners still languish in solitary confinement and the Office of the Public Defender still lacks the funding it needs to adequately defend indigent defendants. Same-sex couples still lack legal protections in our state. We will continue to work hard for these rights in 2014 and in the years to come.