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? ACLU 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.
Before you submit a complaint, please read the information below.
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 3-4 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 Foundation of Northern California's 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 the foundation's litigation department is to bring high-impact cases that defend and promote the fundamental guarantees for civil rights and individual liberties protected by federal and state constitutions.
What types of cases won't they take?
The ACLU Foundation of Northern California (ACLU-NC) does not handle matters that arise outside Northern California. Although there are exceptions, it does not generally assist in these types of cases:
- Criminal defense or post-conviction appeal
- Family law/child custody - The ACLU-NC generally does not provide assistance in family law cases involving disputes about divorces, child custody, parenting time, or visitation.
- Property disputes or building code issues
- Tax problems
- Landlord-tenant issues - The ACLU-NC does not generally get involved in disputes between tenants and their private landlords, unless the issue involves discrimination prohibited by statute or ordinance.
- Complaints about Lawyers or Judges
- Denial of workers' compensation or unemployment benefits - The ACLU-NC generally does not get involved in individual benefits cases, unless the issue involes discrimination prohibited by law or statute.
- Employment -The ACLU-NC usually cannot help when employees believe they were fired unjustly or were otherwise treated unfairly at work. This is especially true when the employer is a private company rather than a government agency. But when workers can show that they were fired or mistreated because of their race, gender, ethnic background, religion, disability or any other basis that violates anti-discrimination statutes, there is stronger legal protection.
What area does the ACLU Foundation of Northern California cover?
The ACLU-NC only handles matters that arise in the Northern California region, stretching north to the Oregon 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, the ACLU-NC can offer assistance to only a small fraction of those who request it. Our office receives thousands of requests for assistance per year and, unfortunately, we do not have the resources available to assist everyone. The ACLU-NC looks for situations taking place in Northern California involving civil rights and civil liberties issues, in which the ACLU's 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-NC is able to offer you assistance after your initial intake, they 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 the ACLU-NC is 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 the intake process does not guarantee that the ACLU-NC will provide legal assistance or advice. Hundreds of requests for assistance are submitted 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?
Ethical obligations limit the ACLU-NC's ability to discuss legal issues with people who are represented by other lawyers. If you already have an attorney, please have your attorney contact the ACLU Foundation of Northern California if they feel that a constitutional issue is present and would like assistance from the ACLU-NC.
Can the ACLU tell me if I have a good case?
When the legal team reviews a case, they are looking not only for legal merit, but for other things that would make a case a worthwhile investment for ACLU-NC's limited resources. They 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. Their failure to take a case does not necessarily mean they think it lacks legal merit.
How you can contact the ACLU Foundation of Northern California
1. Submit a complaint by phone
Monday - Friday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
English & Español: (415) 621-2488
TTY message box for deaf and hard of hearing callers: (415) 863-7832
Contact the 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 the ACLU-NC legal team if you have a complaint that fits the listed criteria. The 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.
2. Submit a complaint by mail
Send a 1-page letter only (due to limited capacity, additional pages will be discarded).
Civil Liberties Hotline
ACLU Foundation of Northern California
39 Drumm Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
Please submit a brief letter outlining your situation. Please do not submit originals or several copies of documents as their safe return to the sender can't be guaranteed. If the ACLU-NC wishes to follow up with you for more information, sending additional documents would be appropriate at that time. ACLU-NC's small staff is unable to carefully review much of the supporting evidence received, as the San Francisco office alone receives thousands of letters requesting legal assistance each year.
3. Submit a complaint electronically
Please be as brief and concise as possible.