Understanding your rights is the first step to protecting them. When can the police stop you – and what can they legally demand? You have freedom of speech, but are there some things you cannot say or do? What are your rights at school? Our legal experts answer essential questions about your rights in a series of Know Your Rights guides. See our full list of Know Your Rights materials.
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Before you submit a complaint, please refer to these frequently asked questions listed below for information on the intake process and cases the ACLU does not do.
Important: Because of the time involved in reviewing complaints, please be careful when requesting assistance for an issue with an upcoming deadline. If you are facing an upcoming court date or similar deadline, you should continue to seek legal assistance elsewhere while we investigate your complaint. Typically, we need at least 2-3 weeks, and sometimes much longer, to respond and cannot guarantee that we will provide you with direct legal representation or advice once we have reached a decision.
What does the Legal Department do?
The ACLU Legal Department is not a legal aid services organization, like the Public Defender’s Office or other neighborhood legal services that provide legal services to low-income individuals, including legal advice as it pertains to specific cases. The main objective of our litigation department is to bring impact cases that defend and promote the fundamental guarantees for civil rights and individual liberties protected by federal and state constitutions.
The ACLU generally gets involved in cases that affect the civil liberties or civil rights of large numbers of people, rather than those involving an isolated dispute between individual parties or private, non-governmental organizations. Although there are exceptions to this rule, involvement depends on the cirumstances of the incident, such as discrimination and harassment of a protected class.
What area does the ACLU of Northern California cover?
We only handle matters that arise in the Northern California region, stretching north to the California border and south to Monterey and Inyo counties. If your issue arises elsewhere, including in Southern California, find your local ACLU office.
How does the ACLU decide to offer assistance to those requesting it?
Generally, we can offer assistance to only a small fraction of those who request it. Our affiliate receives hundreds of requests for assistance per year and, unfortunately, we do not have the resources available to assist everyone. We look for situations taking place in Northern California involving civil rights and civil liberties issues, in which our assistance may have a strong chance of making positive changes for a potentially significant number of people with the same, or similar, issue.
How does the ACLU intake process work?
Each complaint is reviewed by staff to determine whether it constitutes a civil liberties problem the ACLU-NC may be able to help. There are many factors that go into determining whether we may be of assistance at any given time, including availability of staff, resources and timing.
If the ACLU of Northern California is able to offer you assistance after your initial intake, we will contact you to gather more information about your situation. If your situation is time sensitive, please continue to look for help elsewhere while we review your complaint. Your local bar association may have a lawyer referral service or similar program that may provide you with attorney referrals in your county. Please refer to the California Bar Association website for more information.
If we are not able to offer you assistance, we will similarly contact you by phone, mail or email. In either case, because of our small size and the large volume of complaints that we receive, it will take at least a few weeks to let you know of our initial decision.
Has the ACLU-NC agreed to represent me once I submit my complaint to the intake system?
No. Submitting a complaint to our intake process does not guarantee that the ACLU-NC will provide legal assistance or advice. We receive dozens of requests for assistance each month, and there are many cases and problems of unfairness and injustice which the ACLU-NC is simply unable to handle.
If I already have an attorney on the case, can I get legal advice from the ACLU-NC?
Our ethical obligations limit our ability to discuss legal issues with people who are represented by other lawyers. If you already have an attorney, please have your attorney contact us if she or he feels that a constitutional issue is present and would like our assistance.
Can you tell me if I have a good case?
When we review a case, we are looking not only for legal merit, but for other things that would make a case a worthwhile investment for our limited resources. We do not take cases that are primarily factual disputes, have little bearing on the rights of others, or do not involve a civil rights or civil liberties issue. Our failure to take a case does not necessarily mean we think it lacks legal merit.
You can submit a complaint by phone:
Hotline hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 10am to 12pm and 1pm to 3 pm; Wednesday from 10am to 12pm and 1pm to 2pm
TTY message box for deaf and hard of hearing callers: 415.863.7832
Contact our civil liberties hotline to have your legal issue reviewed by ACLU-NC staff. The hotline is staffed by trained volunteer counselors who will bring your matter to the attention of our legal team if you have a complaint that fits the listed criteria. Our volunteer counselors are not attorneys themselves and cannot give you legal advice or refer you to a private attorney, but if possible they may refer you to another resource or agency. Their response, if any, to you should not be interpreted as a legal opinion.
You may contact the civil liberties hotline by phone, this email form or by mail. Please note that walk-ins are not accepted and you will be redirected to the civil liberties hotline.
You can submit a complaint by mail:
Send a 1-page letter only (due to limited capacity, additional pages will be discarded).
Civil Liberties Hotline
ACLU of Northern California
39 Drumm Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
We ask that you submit a brief letter outlining your situation. Please do not submit originals or several copies of documents as we cannot guarantee their safe return to the sender. If we wish to follow up with you for more information, sending additional documents would be appropriate at that time. Our small staff is unable to carefully review much of the supporting evidence we receive as our affiliate alone receives hundreds of letters requesting legal assistance each year.
You can submit a complaint electronically:
Please be as brief and concise as possible. Our small staff does not have the resources or capacity to read lengthy complaints.