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ACLU: Colorado’s branch of the watchdog organization is in Durango’s grill again

What is it with the American Civil Liberties Union? The organization, or at least its Denver-based Colorado branch, seems to have it out for Durango.

The latest notice to the city from the group that deemed Durango’s panhandling laws unconstitutional in 2014 – which resulted, some citizens contend, in the more visible and problematic presence of homeless people on our city streets – has forced another revision to municipal legal code.

This time, the organization informed Durango in early July that an ordinance denying defendants the right to a jury trial in cases where a conviction would not result in a jail sentence violated the Colorado Constitution.

The city, of course, is not interested in denying rights but rather in streamlining the municipal court process – which deals largely with petty offenses and traffic violations – and keeping expenses in check.

The case of Anthony Nocella, an assistant professor at Fort Lewis who requested a trial by jury after he was charged with obstructing city streets and protesting without a permit, got the attention of the ACLU when the city denied the request. Nocella was not entitled to a jury trial in Durango, the city said, because he was only facing a fine, not jail time (the case was later dropped).

But even if a defendant is not facing a jail sentence, ACLU Colorado director Mark Silverstein reminded the city that state law preserves the right to a jury trial. These days, defendants in city court, even those charged with minor traffic violations, are being apprised of their right to a jury trial before they are asked to enter a plea.

Fears of a rash of requests for trial by jury, and greatly increased court expenses, are likely unfounded. Durango City Attorney Dirk Nelson said he does not expect big changes in the operations of municipal court.

But hasn’t the ACLU got bigger fish to fry? The answer is yes, a look at the news will tell you:

On July 27, the city of Aurora agreed to pay $110,000 to settle claims brought by ACLU of Colorado on behalf of Darsean Kelley, a black man hit in the back with a taser by Aurora police, after he was unlawfully detained and a police body camera video clearly showed he was cooperating and was not a threat.

On a national stage, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will review a decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals that upheld a ruling that a Colorado business, Masterpiece Cakeshop, discriminated against a same-sex couple by refusing to sell them a wedding cake. Colorado ACLU, in conjunction with the national organization, is representing the couple in the case.

But the answer is also no because the organization will get involved in a case anywhere in the state, at any legal level, if it perceives a threat to basic rights and due process. As for charges that the ACLU is hopelessly liberal in its philosophy, we beg to differ. What can be more conservative than a dogged defense of the constitutional rights granted to all citizens?

While it might seem an annoyance to have the Colorado ACLU in the city’s business again, the truth is we are glad to hear from them. Because in unsettled times, it is comforting to know that a vigilant, dedicated group of defenders has our backs.

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