Civil Liberties Bills in 2014 Legislative Session

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The Best and the Worst of the 2014 Legislative Session

The legislative session has only just come to a close, and we’re still determining the true effect on civil liberties that some of the legislation that passed and failed this year will have.  For some bills, however, the effect is almost immediately clear. Here are some of the best and the worst results of the 2014 General Assembly session; for more information on the 2014 legislative session, visit our Legislation page, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Bad
DNA Testing of Arrestees (H 7304A as amended, S 2101B)
The General Assembly overwhelmingly approved legislation allowing for the collection of DNA from people merely arrested for a number of offenses. This is the third expansion of DNA collection in recent years – first for those convicted of sex offenses, then those convicted of certain felonies, and now for anyone simply arrested for a “crime of violence” – moving Rhode Island one dangerous step closer toward the creation of a comprehensive DNA database while further eroding the presumption of innocence.
 

Street Gangs (H 7457 as amended, S 2639 as amended)
After more than an hour of heated debate on the final day of the session, the House approved legislation earlier passed by the Senate adding up to ten years of extra jail time for any person convicted of a felony (which now includes a third offense of graffiti), if that person is subjectively determined to be part of a “criminal street gang,” or three or more people who have an identifiable sign, color, or symbol. Despite concerns by the community and legislators that this legislation would result in at-risk youth spending decades in jail while failing to truly address gang violence, the legislation heads to the Governor’s desk.

Medical Marijuana (H 7610A, S 2566)
The General Assembly restricted the rights of medical marijuana caregivers by requiring them to undergo onerous inspections by the Department of Health and allowing landlords to refuse to rent to them, a discrimination which is not permissible for users of any other medical technology. The legislation further restricted the amount of marijuana a caregiver may grow and prohibited any person with a felony record from providing care, making it that much harder for medical marijuana patients to obtain access to their medication.

Larceny of Farm Products (H 7619A, S 2643A)
Following a recent trend of creating new felonies, the General Assembly made it felony to steal just $250 of farm products – larceny is generally not a felony under Rhode Island law unless the item stolen is worth $1,500 or more. The ACLU testified that five years in prison and the lifetime of burdens that come with a felony conviction were out of line with the severity of this crime and current laws, but the General Assembly disagreed.

Gender Rating in Health Insurance (H 7177, S 2221A)
Often the General Assembly’s impact on civil liberties is not in what it passes, but it what it refuses to pass. For the second year in a row, the legislature failed to prohibit health insurance companies from charging different rates to women for the same health insurance as men, solely because of their gender. As a result, women in Rhode Island may remain less able to purchase vital coverage. The Senate passed the bill back in April, but it died in the House.

The Good

High Stakes Testing Moratorium (H 8363 as amended, S 2059A as amended)
There was some very good news from the General Assembly on the last day of the session when the House joined the Senate in delaying the use of high stakes testing as a zero-sum graduation requirement for three years. The Class of 2014 now looks to Governor Chafee to ensure that all students who have earned their high school diploma receive it, regardless of a few points on the NECAP test.

Social Media Privacy (H 7124B, S 2095A as amended)
The General Assembly also approved legislation protecting Rhode Islanders’ private social media information by prohibiting schools and employers from requiring or requesting access to social media passwords or other private information. The legislature came close to approving the legislation last year but it died on the very last day of the session; this year, the legislation was approved overwhelmingly – and before the gavel came down on the final day.

Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment (H 7456, S 2634)
Another example of how a legislation’s failure can impact civil liberties came with legislation drastically overhauling the state’s prohibition on cyberstalking and cyberharassment. The new legislation would have made one single act online that was then used by others to justify harassment a crime, raising serious concerns about a chilling effect to online free speech; with the legislation’s failure, the existing law requiring a series of intentional acts of harassment stands.

Sex Offender Registration and Notification (H 7425)
Although the House approved legislation overhauling the state’s sex offender registration and community notification laws and replacing them with draconian requirements including lifetime registration even for juveniles and retroactive registration for those whose offenses occurred decades earlier, the bill died in the Senate. Rhode Island thus remains with the vast majority of states who have found the program too costly and ineffective to implement.

Human Trafficking (H 7612A, S 2602)
A bill that exemplified how legislation can go from good to bad and back again, legislation that purported to differentiate between consensual sex work and forced participation in the sex trade but in fact conflated the two died in the House. Although the Senate passed the legislation, concerns from the ACLU and other national groups that the bill would turn all involved with sex work into traffickers and make it difficult for actual trafficking victims to receive help helped lead to the bill’s demise.

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