CT Court is First in Nation to Protect Needle Exchange Program from Police Harassment

January 19, 2001 12:00 am

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BRIDGEPORT, CT–In a national test case challenging the illegal harassment and arrest of participants in a Needle Exchange Program, a federal court in Connecticut has ruled that police may not interfere with a public health initiative that effectively combats disease through education and prevention.

“This ruling marks the first time a court has put its stamp of approval on a drug intervention method that has quietly succeeded for more than a decade,” said Alicia Young, an attorney with the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project, which together with the Connecticut ACLU affiliate filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Connecticut Harm Reduction Coalition and two anonymous clients of the Bridgeport Needle Exchange.

“The court’s ruling sends a clear message to police officers that such harassment will not be tolerated, and assures needle exchange programs and anyone who carries a syringe that they can stand up for their rights and win,” Young added.

The state had claimed that Exchange Program participants carrying used syringes with trace amounts of narcotics were criminally liable for possession. But the court found this conclusion “absurd and unworkable,” saying that such arrests would “thwart the intended purpose” of the legislature.

Allowing criminal liability for possession, the court said, “would invite the Bridgeport police to abuse the fourth amendment,” by arresting any injecting drug user found with previously used injection equipment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, three out of four AIDS cases among women are due to injection drug use or heterosexual contact with someone infected with HIV through injection drug use, and over 75 percent of new infections in children result from the consequences of injection drug use in a parent.

Mark Kinzly, a founding member of the Connecticut Harm Reduction Coalition, welcomed the court’s ruling. “Needle exchange programs have been successful for years, and they have also been harassed for years,” he said. “Fear of arrest for carrying or using life-saving instruments undermines a proven means of reducing the risk of transmitting blood-borne diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.”

State-established Needle Exchange programs currently operate in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin. Each of these 13 states has passed laws exempting program participants from criminal liability for carrying hypodermic syringes. According to AIDS Action, a leading advocacy group, there are currently 140 needle exchange programs operating in 39 states, the District of Columbia and the territories (including the 13 states where the programs are legal).

The ACLU’s Young said that litigation on behalf of needle exchange participants has been filed in only one other state, New York, where the lawsuit is still at the preliminary stages.

“Participants in needle exchange programs have come to expect police harassment even when the law is on their side. We hope today’s decision will change that point of view.”

In 1990, Connecticut decriminalized possession of injection drug equipment and established Syringe Exchange Programs to stop the growing rates of HIV infection and AIDS-related deaths among members of the injecting drug user community and their partners and children. Exchanges operate by getting used, dangerous needles off the streets and replacing them with sterile, clean ones.

The program was legally mandated by the state. But the ACLU said in court papers, the Bridgeport police routinely destroyed syringes found on drug users and ripped up clients’ Syringe Exchange Program identification cards, which are issued by the Health Department.

Such illegal intimidation, the ACLU argued, not only discourages drug users from participating in legal programs that get dirty needles off the streets, it sabotages the counseling and public education components of Syringe Exchange Programs that encourage drug users to enter treatment.

In a declaration before the court, Dr. Robert Heimer of the Yale University School of Medicine and a leading expert on HIV transmission among injecting drug users, described a case study he conducted for the state on New Haven’s Exchange Program.

The program, Heimer found, decreased the rates of blood-borne diseases like HIV infection by 33 percent, but a pattern of police harassment and arrest of injection drug users on possession charges discouraged them from visiting Exchanges.

The case, John Doe et al. v. Bridgeport Police Department, was filed in Connecticut District Court by Graham Boyd, Harry Williams and Young of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project and Philip Tegler from the ACLU of Connecticut.

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