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Obtaining Legal Help: Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some questions that people contacting the ACLU of Vermont most frequently ask. Read these before you contact us, so that you can more quickly obtain an answer to your question if it is listed here. Please also remember that nothing on this website is intended to serve as legal advice, and you may not rely on it as such.
If you are looking for information about our recent legal advocacy, our docket is here.
 
 
General Questions (incl. complaint forms)

Q:    How do I ask for the ACLU's help?

A:    First, read these frequently asked questions. If your question has not been answered by our Legal Help Frequently Asked Questions, you may fill out a complaint form and mail it to our office.

Each complaint is reviewed by staff to see whether it constitutes a civil liberties problem with which ACLU-VT may be able to help. If the ACLU of Vermont is able to offer you assistance, we will contact you to gather more information about your situation. If we are not able to offer you assistance, we will contact you by mail. In either case, because of our small size and the large volume of complaints that we receive, it will take approximately six weeks to let you know of our initial decision.

Important: Because of the time involved in reviewing complaints, you should be very careful when asking for help with an upcoming legal 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. You should not simply send us your complaint a week before you are due in court and hope that we will respond in time.

 

Q:    Why do I have to contact you on paper through the mail?

A:    It's important for us to have information about your situation presented in writing so we can carefully evaluate whether the issue is one we might take up. Of course, if you are disabled or otherwise unable to write down your information, you should contact us to work out alternative arrangements.

 

Q:    How can I obtain a complaint form?

A:    You may download one here. Alternatively, you may call our office (802.223.6304) and leave us a message with your address, and we'll mail you one.

 

Q:    How does the ACLU decide to offer assistance to those requesting it?

A:    Candidly, we can offer assistance to only a fraction of those who request it. We look for situations arising in Vermont involving civil liberties issues, in which our assistance has a strong chance of making positive changes for not just the individual filing the complaint, but potentially a number of people with the same, or similar, problem.

 

Q:    My relative / friend / child is having a problem and I'd like to ask the ACLU of Vermont for help.

A:    If the person experiencing the problem is over the age of eighteen and is not incapacitated, she or he should contact us directly. The ACLU of Vermont takes the confidentiality of those who contact us very seriously, and we will seek to deal directly with the person who is asking for our help so that we can get a full and frank understanding of the person's situation.

 

Q:    My spouse or child is in prison and I'd like to ask the ACLU of Vermont for help on their behalf

A:    The person who is in prison must contact us directly. See above.

 

Q:    How long does it take to review my complaint and make a decision?

A:    Because we are such a small organization and we receive so many complaints, it can take up to a month to determine whether or not we can assist you with your problem.

 

Q:    Would it speed up your decision-making process if I called and asked about the status of my complaint?

A:    No. We will contact you as soon as we've reached a decision, or if we need any further information from you.

 

Q:    My problem has nothing to do with Vermont. Should I still contact you?

A:    Probably not. You can find an ACLU affiliate covering the location in which your problem is arising by consulting this map.

 
Encounters With the Police

Q:    What should I do if I've been stopped by the police?

A:    See our complete answer -- whether you've encountered the police on the street, in a car, on in your home -- here. A printable version is available here [PDF], y en español aquí [PDF].

 

Q:    I am not an American citizen. What if I am asked questions about my immigration status?

A:    See our complete answer here [PDF].

 
The Census

Q:    Do I have to answer census questions?

A:    See our Census FAQ on the web here.

 
Christmas

Q:    Does the ACLU hate Christmas?

A:    Of course not. The American Civil Liberties Union takes seriously its commitment to defending the First Amendment of the United States Constitution by not only working to ensure that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion" but, just as importantly, by helping to guarantee that there be no "prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The ACLU is often better known for its work preventing the government from promoting and funding selected religious activities, but that is only half our charge. By ensuring that the government refrains from promoting religion or any particular faith, the ACLU helps ensure that freedom of religion and belief remains an important principle of our democracy.

Christmas displays, for example, things like nativity displays, are perfectly acceptable at homes and churches. Religious expression -- during the holidays and throughout the year -- is a valued part of the First Amendment rights guaranteed all citizens. But government should never be in the business of endorsing things like religious displays. Religion is best served when the government plays no role in promoting any particular holiday or any individual religious tradition. That job is best suited for individuals, families and religious communities.

See ACLU's Christmas materials on the web.

 

Q:    What kinds of holiday displays are permissible by government entities?

A:    See ACLU's Christmas materials here.

Arrested and/or Charged With a Crime

Q:    I've been arrested and/or charged with a crime and I need a lawyer. Can you help me?

A:    If you meet certain income eligibility guidelines, you may qualify for the services of a court-appointed defense attorney.

If you have been charged with a state crime, you should contact the Defender General (Vermont's public defense agency) at the office nearest you.

If you have been charged with a federal crime, you should contact the Federal Defender's Vermont office.

If you do not qualify for a court-appointed defense attorney, you may wish to hire a private attorney to defend you. To find a criminal defense attorney in your area, you may wish to use the Vermont Bar Association's lawyer referral service, which can refer you to a private attorney who will speak with you for a reduced initial consultation fee.

In any case, you should feel free to contact us, but you should understand that we are generally unable to provide trial level criminal defense on account of our small size and narrow focus.

 

Q:    I've been offered a plea bargain. Should I take it?

A:    You should discuss your options thoroughly with your attorney before waiving your right to trial and agreeing to plead guilty. Generally speaking, it is very difficult to undo a voluntary guilty plea once it has been entered, so you should ask your attorney about things like:

  • what effect a conviction will have on your ability to secure future employment
  • what effect a conviction will have on your immigration status (if you are not a citizen)
  • whether a conviction will require you to report as a sex offender after your release from prison
  • what the penalties are for the charge(s) to which you may plead guilty, bearing in mind that a minimum sentence does not mean that you will be released from prison as soon as you have completed your minimum
Plea bargains can offer a good deal to both the prosecution and the defense, but you should discuss your options with your attorney before making any decision.

Nothing on this website is intended to serve as legal advice, and you may not rely on it as such. You should consult an attorney before deciding whether or not to enter into a plea bargain.

 

Q:    I have recently been convicted, and I wish to appeal. Can you help me?

A:    As with representation at your trial, you may be entitled to a court-appointed attorney for an appeal of your conviction. See above.

 

Q:    I've been charged with a crime and I have a lawyer. Would you help my lawyer defend me?

A:    See answer here.

 
Probation or Supervised Release

Q:    I'm on probation or supervised release in Vermont and I'm having a problem.

A:    If you are having difficulty on probation or supervised release, including questions about the conditions that you must comply with or questions about revocation, you should contact the attorney who represented you during your criminal trial. If you had assigned counsel provided by the Defender General or the Federal Defender, you should contact that attorney.

 
Family Disputes

Q:    I am involved in a custody dispute, and a judge has awarded custody of my children to someone else. Can you help me?

A:    Generally, disputes between you and another person over the custody of your children is a private dispute, rather than a violation of your civil liberties by the government. If you disagree with a decision that a judge has made, the judge has not necessarily violated your civil liberties: your recourse is to appeal the judge's decision.

In any case, you should feel free to contact us, but you should understand that our work has a narrow focus on law reform.

 

Q:    The State has started court proceedings to terminate my parental rights. Can you help me?

A:    If you meet certain eligibility guidelines, you may be entitled to a court-appointed attorney; you should contact the nearest Defender General's office and inquire. If you do not meet eligibility guidelines, you may wish to hire a private attorney. See below for an explanation of how to locate a Vermont attorney.

 

Q:    I am representing myself in family court. Is there any information online about how to do that?

A:    The Vermont judiciary has placed answers to commonly asked family court questions online here. It has also launched a website that can help you fill out common family court forms, like those used to start a divorce, and those used in parentage disputes.

 
Voting and Elected Officials

Q:    How do I register to vote here in Vermont?

A:    The Vermont Secretary of State's website has excellent information explaining eligibility, registration procedure, and downloadable forms.

 

Q:    I am a Vermonter, but I am incarcerated or will be reporting to prison soon. How do I vote from prison?

A:    Vermonters may vote in state and local elections while in prison by casting an absentee ballot through the mail. You should talk to your home town clerk about obtaining an absentee ballot, or see the Vermont Secretary of State's online information about absentee voting.

 

Q:    Who are my elected officials?

A:    You can look up your local, state, and federal elected officials by entering your zip code here.

 
Help With Case Already Underway, incl. Amicus Briefs

Q:    I have a lawyer helping me with my legal problem, but I'd like the ACLU of Vermont to help him or her.

A:    Generally, we assume individuals who have counsel to be in good hands, and we prefer to expend our very limited resources on those who cannot locate an attorney to assist them with their civil liberties issue.

If your attorney has questions about civil rights or civil liberties law as relates to your situation, your attorney should contact us directly.

If you are seeking our help because you are not satisfied with your attorney's representation of you, you should raise those concerns with your attorney. If you do not feel that your attorney is adequately representing you or is not listening to you, you should think about whether or not to seek a different attorney by either hiring a new one or asking the court to appoint a different one to represent you.

 

Q:    I am appealing a case; will the ACLU submit an amicus curiae brief in support of me?

A:    Before we can make any decision about an amicus brief, we need to know a lot about your case. You should mail a completed complaint form to us along with copies (no originals, please) of the decision that you are appealing, the trial court briefing on that decision, and any relevant transcripts. If you have already assembled a joint appendix or printed case, you should send that, as well. Because an amicus brief is usually due on the same day as the brief of the party whose position the amicus supports, you should contact us with an amicus brief request as far ahead of time as possible. If you have an attorney, you should also have your attorney contact us.

 
Landlord / Tenant

Q:    I rent my home and am in a dispute with my landlord. Can you help me?

A:    The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity publishes a helpful guide for both landlords and tenants called Renting in Vermont that you might find useful. If, after consulting the guide, you believe that your situation is one that we can help with, feel free to contact us.

 
Questions About Attorneys and Judges

Q:    I am looking to hire a lawyer but I don't know how to find one.

A:    You may wish to use the Vermont Bar Association's lawyer referral service, which can refer you to a private attorney who will speak with you for a reduced initial consultation fee.

 

Q:    How can I find out if a particular person is licensed to practice law in Vermont?

A:    The Vermont judiciary is responsible for attorney licensing and discipline. The judiciary's attorney licensing program has a list of attorneys who are in good standing and permitted to practice law in Vermont on its website. The board places a periodically updated list of all such attorneys here. If you're looking to hire an attorney, you may also wish to check whether the attorney in question has any history of discipline by checking with the Professional Conduct Board. See below.

 

Q:    How can I make a complaint about an attorney?

A:    The Vermont judiciary's Professional Conduct Board handles attorney discipline. Instructions and contact information is available on the Board's website.

 

Q:    How can I make a complaint about a judge?

A:    The Vermont judiciary's Judicial Conduct Board handles complaints about judges. Information is available on the Board's website.

 
Sources of Law

Q:    Where can I find the constitution online?

A:    The National Archives has placed images and a transcription of the United States Constitution online here.

A copy of the Vermont Constitution, which predates the United States Constitution and has been interpreted to be more protective of individual rights in some respects, can be found here.

 

Q:    Where can I find statutes and regulations online?

A:    The Vermont Statutes (the compendium of laws passed by the legislature) are online here. Vermont's state regulatory compilation (the Code of Vermont Rules) is available online here.

The United States Code (the compendium of laws passed by Congress) is available here. The Code of Federal Regulations is available online here.

 

Q:    Where can I read court decisions online?

A:    The availability of court decisions varies widely. Many decisions are published by the large online commercial legal research services LEXIS and Westlaw, but can be found elsewhere for free. Notably, Google Scholar provides some access to decisions here (enter your search term and click the "legal opinions and journals" button. Otherwise, decisions may be found as follows:

    Vermont courts
  • The Vermont Superior Court -- civil, criminal, family, probate, and the judicial bureau (traffic court) divisions -- do not regularly report decisions through published volumes or a website, although civil division opinions are occasionally published online here and environmental division opinions are occasionally published online here. In addition, the Vermont Lawyer & Trial Court Reporter, (802) 226-7852, publishes some trial decisons of note.
  • The Vermont Supreme Court, Vermont's sole appellate court, has published its decisions online since 2003 here and here.
  • Vermont court rules are available online here.

 

    United States courts
  • The United States District Courts (trial courts) report their decisions in the Federal Supplement printed volumes, in addition to online in a sporadic fashion on CourtWeb. Detailed docketing information about cases in the United States District Court for the District of Vermont are available on the court's CM/ECF docketing system, which charges a per-page fee to access documents (with the exception of decisions, which are free).
  • The United States Courts of Appeals, the federal courts' mid-level regional appellate courts, have begun to report their decisions online. The court covering the region including Vermont, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Second Circuit, has followed suit and now places its most recent thirty days' decisions online. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University has also made Courts of Appeals decisions dating from the mid-1990's to the present available online.
  • The United States Supreme Court publishes its opinions in the official United States Reports, in addition to making the most recent term's slip opinions online. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University has also made United States Supreme Court decisions dating from 1990 to the present available online.
  • Federal court rules can be found online here.
 
Public Records

Q:    Where can I learn more about public records laws?

A:    Vermont's public records law, governing records generated by the state of Vermont and any municipal government within Vermont, is codified at Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 1, §§ 315-317a. The Vermont Secretary of State has published a very dated, but reasonable introduction to the law, complete with instructions and a sample request letter.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), governs records generated by the United States government. The ACLU has created a comprehensive website that can guide you through making a FOIA request.

 
Prison

Q:    What rights do prisoners have to receive publications by mail?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to publications by mail in prison here [PDF].

 

Q:    What mail is privileged?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to privileged and non-privileged mail here [PDF].

 

Q:    What rights do disabled prisoners have?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to disabled prisoners' rights here [PDF].

 

Q:    How does the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) affect prisoners' litigation?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to the PRLA here [PDF].

 

Q:    What rights do prisoners have against assault and excessive force?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to assault and excessive force in prison here. [PDF]

 

Q:    What rights do prisoners have to medical, dental, and mental health care?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to health care in prison here. [PDF]

 

Q:    What rights do pregnant prisoners have to health care?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to pregnancy related health care in prison here. [PDF]

 

Q:    What rights do prisoners have with respect to discipline and sanctions in prison?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to discipline in prison here. [PDF]

 

Q:    What rights do prisoners have to practice their religion?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to religious freedom in prison here. [PDF]

 

Q:    What rights do prisoners have with respect to environmental hazards and toxics?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to environmental hazards and toxics here. [PDF]

 

Q:    What restrictions may be placed upon visitation in prison?

A:    See the ACLU National Prison Project's guide to visitation here. [PDF]

 

Q:    How can Vermont prisoners vote while imprisoned?

A:    See here.

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