Civil liberties are at their most vulnerable at times of crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As with wars, political strife, economic downfalls, and natural disasters, it’s all too easy for governmental and other seats of power to declare civil liberties a luxury.

But not on our watch. The ACLU has been fighting for civil liberties for 100 years through crises of national, state, and local proportions.

In keeping with this legacy, the ACLU of Southern California is demanding that those liberties framed by the U.S. and state constitutions be upheld during the current pandemic. Attorneys, organizers, and others from the ACLU SoCal are reaching out to numerous agencies to remind them that we’re counting on them to protect the health and safety of all Californians while never losing sight of our rights and civil liberties.

This includes due process rights, protections for vulnerable populations such as incarcerated people, and equal access to care regardless of immigration status.

As a guide to some of the actions being taken, here is a selection of letters that the ACLU SoCal and our advocacy partners have sent to agencies by issue area. We will continue to update you on this work in the weeks ahead.

People Impacted by the Justice System

In a campaign aimed at reducing jails population, the ACLU SoCal has asked the district attorneys, public defenders offices, and presiding judges to eliminate or greatly reduce bail amounts. We also urged that court proceedings be modified to reduce the number of in-person appearances.

People in Detention

A COVID-19 outbreak at the Adelanto or Mesa Verde ICE detention centers could be horrific in scale, especially because of overcrowding and a demonstrated failure to provide adequate medial care and hygiene supplies. The ACLU SoCal has asked that strict, evidence-based plans be put into place to help minimize the chance of a rapidly streaming outbreak. These would not only protect detainees, but also staff members who could potentially spread the virus to nearby communities.

People Incarcerated and Imprisoned

We strongly urge sheriff departments, which oversees county jail systems (Los Angeles has the largest jail system in the world), to severely cut the population of its incarceration facilities that are severely overcrowded, making them rife for disastrous outbreaks of contagious illnesses. Agencies must adopt early release and other programs to reduce the overall jail population significantly.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has inaugurated some policy changes, reducing the overall jail population by 3.5% and reducing the average number of daily arrests from 300 to 60. But that's not enough to make the facilities substantially safer. We are keeping the pressure on through a variety of channels and will continue to advocate for further reductions.

People Experiencing Homelessness

The ACLU SoCal — in coalition with the ACLU affiliates in Northern California and San Diego & Imperial Counties — reached out to the California Department of Public Health in regard to the state’s homeless shelters. These facilities, far too-often plagued with severely unhygienic and unsafe conditions, are especially in danger of COVID-19 outbreaks. We were gratified that a few days after our contact with the department, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced guidelines for shelters in line with our recommendations in regard to hygiene supplies, social distancing, and the use of motels and other housing to give people who are homeless the opportunity for self-isolation in motels and other housing. These were an important step, but as guidelines they do not have the force of law. The ACLU affiliates will continue to advocate for measures that are enforceable.


The ACLUs of Southern California, Northern California, and San Diego & Imperial Counties wrote a letter to the state's education leaders urging the adoption of policies for students whose schools had closed to the health crisis. Shortly thereafter, state policies were announced that closely mirrored what the ACLU urged be done. The policies include remote instruction options for all students, including English learners; the continuation of nutrition programs for food-insecure students; the maintaining of services for students with disabilities; and the establishment of alternative childcare programs for low-income parents and guardians who cannot take time off their jobs.

Privacy, Technology & Civil Liberties

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief the precarity of communities’ privacy, in both the physical and digital worlds. The pandemic has caused education institutions to shift from in-classroom instruction to distance learning, raising a pressing need for devices and internet connectivity so students can use online platforms like Google Classroom and Zoom for learning. The reliance on technology threatens equity, access, and privacy, which we have raised with state leaders. As a result of our advocacy, the state has issued guidance to schools reminding them to safeguard student privacy as schools use technology to connect with students. The ACLU of California affiliates have also advocated to oppose the potential use of software integrated with facial recognition technology for proctoring the California Bar Examination due to civil rights and privacy concerns.

Other Resources

This page will continue to provide updates on how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting civil rights and liberties in Southern California. We will also be sharing relevant community and statewide news and resources here as well.

If you think you may have symptoms of COVID-19 or have questions about being tested, contact your general healthcare provider to ask about testing. If you do not have a general healthcare provider, contact the California Department of Public Health at 916-328-3605.