2017 Legislative Session
The 2017 Legislative Session has been an interesting one. Since January hundreds of bills were introduced and passed by both the House and Senate – some good, such as automatic voter registration and child support relief for incarcerated parents, and some not so great, such as police access to the Prescription Database Monitoring Program.
However, on what would have been the last day of session, the House abruptly recessed due to unforeseen issues passing the proposed budget in the Senate, leaving hundreds of bills in limbo.
The General Assembly is set to reconvene in September 2017, but it is still too early to tell which bills they will take up and which they will let die. But as always, the ACLU will be there to keep a watchful eye…
Abortion (H 5343, S 274)
With the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance in light of a divided U.S. Supreme Court, Representative Edith Ajello (H 5343) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 274) have introduced legislation that would codify the principles of that seminal court decision into state law. The House bill includes more than thirty co-sponsors, the most legislative support for abortion rights that the ACLU has seen in decades. ACLU volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger testified for the Affiliate in support of the legislation at the hearings in the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. This legislation is still being held for further study in each committee with no action taken before the June recess.
Repeal of Prohibition for Abortion Insurance (H 5435)
During the first week of March, the House Corporations Committee heard testimony regarding legislation introduced by Rep. Joseph Almeida (H 5435) to repeal the provisions of the general laws that currently prohibit health insurance coverage for induced abortions in policies covering state and municipal employees. (The municipal employee ban, though it remains on the books, was declared unconstitutional many years ago.) This important legislation would ensure that employees who receive their health insurance through their state or municipal job would not be denied this necessary medical coverage in seeking or needing to have an abortion. No action has been taken on this legislation since it was first heard in the House Corporations Committee.
These two pieces of legislation (H 5446 and H 5447) try to cover up their real motive behind a supposed “protection” for unborn children. Nevertheless, in reality both bills aim to undermine reproductive rights, threaten physicians, and enshrine into law the concept of “fetal personhood. No action has been taken on either bill since they were first heard.
Civil Rights Bills
Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners (S 282, H 6358)
In June, the ACLU testified in the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of legislation sponsored by Senator Erin Lynch Prata (S 282) to strengthen the state’s limitation on shackling pregnant incarcerated women. A restrained pregnant woman cannot move freely or control her balance, placing both her and her fetus at risk. While state law generally prohibits shackling pregnant women during transport to a medical facility, this legislation will prohibit shackling to or from a court proceeding during an inmate’s third trimester.
In late June, the Senate unanimously passed S 282. However, the General Assembly went on recess without the House Judiciary Committee taking any action on the bill.
Gender Rating (H 5109, S 578)
Nationwide, women have historically been charged more for the same health insurance as men, solely because of their gender, leaving women less able to purchase vital health care coverage. This practice is generally illegal under the Affordable Care Act, but gaps in that Act allow the practice to continue. The potential repeal of the ACA by Congress further solidifies the need for protections at the state level. Passage of legislation being sponsored by Representative Katherine Kazarian and Senator Susan Sosnowski will keep gender rating out of Rhode Island, regardless of any changes to federal law. Read the ACLU's testimony.
In May, S-578 was passed on the Senate Floor and referred to the House Corporations Committee where no action was taken before the June recess.
Municipal Courts (H 5187, S 71)PASSED
The ACLU joined with the Public Defender and the RI Coalition for the Homeless to support legislation requiring municipal courts to provide free attorneys to indigent defendants charged with ordinance violations that could result in imprisonment. The legislation was proposed by Representative Shelby Maldonado (H 5187) and Senator Stephen Archambault (S 71). During the hearings in the Senate and the House, all the testifiers noted that the bill merely codified what the Constitution already requires, but what some municipalities are ignoring.
Both versions of this legislation were passed and sent to Governor to be signed.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) (S 492, H 5278)
The ACLU testified in opposition to legislation (S 492, H 5278) due to the many civil liberty concerns it raised. The legislation would allow APRNs to attest to a patient’s mental health condition and need for treatment, submit documents and testify in court for purposes of certifying them for involuntary treatment. While APRNs play a significant role in the mental health community in RI, their practice and knowledge has limitations. Allowing them to certify individuals for outpatient civil commitments without the necessary training and experience that psychiatrists bring to the table will effectively deprive many individuals from their civil liberties.
As our testimony details, “APRNs are a vital and integral part of the mental health system…But as important as their judgments, insights, and interactions are, they should not be a substitute when it comes to making certifications that could result in the significant loss of a person’s liberty.”
The Senate passed S 492 with amendments in early June, but no further action has been taken on H-5278.
Driver’s Education (H 5055)
A bill introduced by Rep. McNamara (H 5055) has raised concerns among several community advocates in the state including the Human Rights Commission, RI for Community and Justice, Jobs for Justice, and the ACLU of RI. The bill would seek to include as part of the driver’s education curriculum the responsibilities of a driver during a traffic stop. Advocacy organizations believe that in addition to learning about their responsibilities during a traffic stop, drivers should also be made aware of their rights. After all, the interaction during a traffic stop works two ways, and driver education courses should therefore teach students not only what is expected of them, but what they can expect from the officer who has stopped them.
The bill was passed in the House in early June and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, no action was taken on the bill in the Senate.
Criminal Justice Bills
Juvenile Sentencing (H 5183, S 0237)
This legislation aims to address the long sentences of juveniles who are charged as adults. As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” Yet many who commit their crimes as children are viewed as incapable of rehabilitation, and incarcerated long into their adulthood. Under the proposed legislation, juveniles who are sentenced as adults would automatically come before the parole board after fifteen years, regardless of the length of their sentence, giving these young adults the chance to prove their fitness to return to society. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation sponsored by Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski (H 5183) and Senator Harold M. Metts (S 237). Click here for a fact sheet on this issue put together by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
In June, the Senate passed S 237 and referred the bill to House Judiciary where no action was taken prior to the June recess.
Justice Reinvestment Package
During 2016, the General Assembly seemed poised to pass a number of important bills aimed at improving the criminal justice system. The package of six bills sprang from the Governor's Justice Reinvestment Working Group, and followed nearly a year's worth of work between government officials and community advocates. Each of these bills passed the Senate but, in a disappointing turn of events, the House failed to act on any of the legislation before the end of the 2016 session. In efforts to revive these efforts, early in the 2017 session the package was once again introduced. Among these bills is legislation clarifying the definition of misdemeanor and felony (H 5115, S 0011) and amending the appropriate penalties, adjusting the way probation and parole are done, and establishing a Superior Court diversion program (H 5064, S 0010).
Early in February, the Senate passed the package of bills, which were referred to the House Judiciary Committee and held for further study until the last day of the session when they were unexpectedly and severely amended. Due to the last minute legislative impasse, the package did not move forward in the House. This was fortuitous because the amended bills significantly undermine key aspects of the Task Force’s efforts. A summary of all the bills can be found here: http://bit.ly/2q0Iops
Human Trafficking (H 5300, S 73)PASSED
In February the ACLU and the Urban Justice Center testified before the House (H 5300) and Senate (S 73) Judiciary Committee on a bill that has some laudable provisions designed to address the scourge of human trafficking, but that also had a number of problematic provisions. The bill provides immunity to trafficked minors only if they state in their defense that they were a trafficking victim – a statement many victims are not ready to make when they are arrested. Other parts of the legislation penalize behavior that was not criminal at the time it was conducted. However, the ACLU succeeded in getting removed a provision that would have turned soliciting prostitution from a misdemeanor into a felony, imposing extremely harsh penalties on individuals engaged in consensual sexual activity. This legislation was passed in the House and the Senate in June and signed by the Governor.
Blue Lives (H 5260)
This legislation would enhance the penalties for crimes committed against a police officer by making them “hate crimes.” In February, the ACLU testified in front of the House Judiciary committee stating that treating crimes against police officers as hate crimes devalues the discrimination that truly marginalized communities such as members of the LGBTQ community and people of color have faced for decades. Similar legislation has been introduced throughout the country in response to the killing of six officers in Dallas in 2016. However, FBI reports demonstrate that crimes committed against police, regardless of motive, are at an all time low. This legislation was held for further study after its hearing and no action was taken on it before the June recess.
Good Samaritan - Alcohol Overdose (H 5402, S 170)
The "Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act of 2016" protects individuals from being prosecuted when they seek medical assistance for someone experiencing a drug overdose or other drug-related medical emergency. This legislation, which has already been heard in the House (H 5402) and the Senate (S 170) Judiciary committees, would add immunity for those reporting alcohol overdose and alcohol use by minors. The ACLU has been a strong supporter of the Good Samaritan legislation in the General Assembly for many years, and supports this addition to the existing Act.
In March, the Senate passed S-170 and referred it to the House Judiciary Committee where no action was taken prior to the June recess.
Unauthorized Computer Access (H 5543, S 592)
As part of a package of computer crimes legislation put forward by the Attorney General's office, whistleblowers would be treated the same as malicious hackers, subjecting them to felony penalties for gaining "unauthorized access" to a computer. In February, the ACLU testified before the House (H 5543) Judiciary committee in opposition to this broadly worded legislation that is based on a federal law that has been used to punish people who have engaged in whistleblowing activities. After the hearing on this bill, no further action was taken.
Due Process Bills
During the last week of April, the House Judiciary Committee heard numerous bills pitting gun owners’ rights against gun control advocates. While the ACLU does not take issue with efforts to restrict the types of weapons available for purchase, we do believe that attempts to regulate the possession of firearms can sometimes implicate other constitutional rights.
H-5262 and H-5554 would impose mandatory minimum sentences to newly created crimes involving firearms, while H-5154 would deny parole to any person convicted of a crime in which a firearm was used to commit the offense. The ACLU testified that mandatory sentences are ineffective, costly and eliminate individualized consideration of the offender and the circumstances of the offense.
H-5730 would require a national criminal record check for gun permit applicants. However, the bill does not provide any standards as to how the results of that background check will be used. In order to ensure that there is no arbitrary decision-making in disqualifying a person, the ACLU argued that there should be some reasonable standards in place specifying potentially disqualifying criminal offenses.
To understand more about our position on these bills, you can read our testimony here.
For years, the ACLU has been objecting to the procedures used by the Vehicle Value Commission in deciding the value of cars for tax purposes. By creating an irrebuttable presumption that virtually every car on the road in the state is "like new," and providing car owners no meaningful avenue to appeal their assessments, the Commission has eliminated any real due process in its valuation practices. That may change this year, with numerous bills introduced, including one from the House Speaker, designed to address the problem. We have offered our own suggestions over the years but, as we testified before the House Finance Committee, any bill that addresses this issue is a positive step for due process. A provision to repeal the car tax over a period of years is contained in the state's budget bill.
Vehicle Registration Suspension (H 6213, S 965)PASSED
In early June, legislation that seeks to expand the denial of vehicle registration to individuals who may have outstanding unpaid interest or penalties on fines owed to a city or town was introduced by Rep. Blazejewski (H 6213) and Senator Goodwin (S 965).
The legislation is problematic and worrisome since it will especially impact low-income families. The ACLU submitted testimony arguing that only traffic related fines should be considered when it comes to the revocation or denial of a car registration. Using a vehicle as a tool for punishment to make individuals pay for fines that may have nothing to do with a traffic violation will have larger consequences in the long run. Driving without a registered vehicle leads to substantial penalties or even a revoked license, which simply prolongs and worsens the person’s financial issues and hardships.
Michael Araujo, Executive Director of Jobs for Justice wrote an article on RI Future about this legislation and on the impact that it will have on some of the most vulnerable Rhode Island residents.
This bill passed the House and the Senate the last week of June and signed by the Governor into law in July.
Juvenile Interrogation (S 427)
Legislation introduced by Senator William Conley (S 427) will require that a minor have a parent or guardian present during questioning by law enforcement. As one of our most recent cases shows, juveniles are generally less able to understand their legal rights while being interrogated, yet law enforcement does so as if they were well-informed adults possessing a full understanding of the weight of an interrogation. Rhode Island law generally protects children who are interrogated while at school, requiring a guardian to be present. Yet, if the child’s first interaction with a police officer occurs off campus, no such protection currently applies. This legislation would rectify that difference.
In June, the Senate passed this legislation, where it was referred to the House Judiciary Committee where no action was taken prior to the June recess.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Panhandling (H 5210 and H-5258)
In March, the ACLU testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee on two bills regarding panhandling. H-5210 would make it illegal for a driver or passenger in a motor vehicle to “stop on any public highway to give any person any item.” H-5258 bans loitering on a public highway under certain circumstances. Both pieces of legislation are clearly aimed at panhandling, although they would also have a much broader impact on the exercise of First Amendment rights generally.
The ACLU has continuously criticized municipalities that have proposed or tried to pass ordinances aimed at criminalizing panhandling. All communities except for one have backed down from passing such ordinances after objections from the ACLU and homeless rights advocactes. The exception is the City of Cranston, which in January passed an ordinance that would ban a person from entering or standing in a roadway or median for the purpose of distributing anything to, or receiving anything from, the occupant of a motor vehicle. The ACLU has challenged that ordinance, and expects to do the same if either of these two bills passes.
This legislation is being held for further study, with no action taken prior to the June recess.
Autopsies (H 5473)
During March, the ACLU testified on this bill (H 5473) which amends current state law designed to protect the religious freedom of Rhode Islanders by restricting autopsies when it would contravene the decedent’s religious beliefs. Specifically, the bill would remove the option for a “friend” of the deceased to object to an autopsy, and instead require that the objection come only from a family member or legal guardian. The ACLU testified that removing the “friend” authorization in those instances when a family member or guardian is not available is problematic. It serves as an important safeguard for those instances when no family member is available to provide information about a decedent’s religious beliefs. In order to preserve the important goal of religious freedom represented by this law, the ACLU urged that the language regarding a friend’s ability, in the absence of a family member, to object to an autopsy remain. No action was taken on this legislation before the June recess.
Free Speech Bills
“Revenge Porn” (H 5304, S 401, S 765)
The ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees regarding the Attorney General’s so-called revenge porn legislation (H 5304, S 401), which, we noted in our testimony, required neither revenge nor porn to subject a person to criminal penalties. The legislation would make it a crime to electronically transmit nude or sexually explicit images without the person’s consent. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the Governor's version of the revenge porn bill (S 765) which addresses some of the basic constitutional concerns of the AG's bill.
The Media Coalition and the R.I. Press Association also opposed the bill. Publishing some of the photos from Abu Ghraib or, on a less grave note, pictures of Anthony Weiner’s too-exposed body part could be criminal under this bill. That is why Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed this legislation last year and, the ACLU hopes, will veto it again if it is not amended to address the legitimate concerns raised by civil liberties advocates and the media. Nonetheless, in March, the House passed the bill, with only Reps. Edie Ajello and Jason Knight dissenting.
In March, the House passed this legislation and referred it to the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, due to the abrupt General Assembly recess no action was taken on this legislation.
Student Free Press (H 5550, S 600)PASSED
This spring, the ACLU testified in support of important legislation introduced by Senator Gayle Goldin (S 600) and Representative Jeremiah O'Grady (H 5550), which would recognize the importance of encouraging student journalism and guaranteeing to students certain basic rights to freedom of the press.
This bill would reverse an unfortunate U.S. Supreme Court decision that had a chilling effect on student journalism throughout the country. Under this bill, a free and responsible student press would be able to flourish in Rhode Island, as it has in 12 other states that have adopted similar laws.
On the last day of the General Assembly session, both the House and the Senate passed this legislation. Governor Raimondo signed it into law during the month of July.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
E-Verify (H 5195)
The ACLU of RI submitted written testimony in March to the House Labor committee in opposition to a bill making E-Verify use mandatory by Rhode Island employers, and in favor of a bill (H 5195) keeping the E-Verify program voluntary. E-Verify is a federal program that allows employers to check the names of job applicants in a database to confirm their citizenship status. The ACLU noted that E-Verify continues to be an error-prone system which disproportionately disqualifies legal workers with Hispanic and Arabic last names, is used by employers to discriminate against potential workers, and still fails to prevent undocumented workers from obtaining employment. No further action was taken on this legislation after the March hearing.
State Enforcement of Immigration Laws
During March, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on three immigration bills, two of which were aimed to require assistance from state and municipal government in the enforcement of immigration laws. On the other hand, H 5515, introduced by Representative Shelby Maldonado, would set in place protections against any federal mandates to enforce immigration detainers. The ACLU as well as dozens of other individuals and organizations testified in opposition to H 5093 and H 5394 and in support of H 5515.
The ACLU has been a vocal opponent of any legislation or executive orders aimed at forcing municipalities or state police agencies to enforce immigration laws, noting their potential to increase racial profiling and lead to unauthorized arrests of individuals.
No action was taken on any of these bill prior to the General Assembly's June recess.
Open Government Bills
Access to Public Records (S 68)
The Access to Public Records Act is a critical law, essential to promoting open government and an informed citizenry. Despite updates to the law in 2012, an audit by the ACLU and other groups concerned with transparency in government found the law’s enforcement policies insufficient to ensure compliance from dozens of agencies. The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee this year in support of legislation sponsored by Senator Stephen Archambault (S 68) to make it easier for the public to obtain documents of public concern. Among other provisions, the legislation limits when documents such as arrest reports and correspondence by elected officials could be exempt from release, requires public bodies to specifically note the reasons for withholding any document and to prominently feature their public records policies on their websites, and allows courts to impose stronger penalties on those agencies that improperly withhold documents. No further action was taken on this legislation after being heard.
38 Studios Public Records (H 5347, S 932)PASSED
This legislation would make public any records generated or obtained by the Rhode Island state police or Attorney General in their investigation of the 38 Studios scandal. The ACLU assisted sponsor Rep. Charlene Lima in drafting the legislation, and the House approved the measure in March. Citing the strong public interest in their release, the ACLU and other open government groups have been calling for disclosure of the documents since last year. In April, the ACLU filed a friend of the court brief in support of the release of the grand jury records in the investigation. Senator Lombardi introduced this legislation (S 932) as well in the Senate.
This legislation passed the House and the Senate during the month of June. However, before the Governor even had an opportunity to sign the bill, the Attorney General had a Superior Court judge issue a temporary restraining order blocking release of documents from the 38 Studios investigation.
Administrative Procedures Act (H 5339, S 229)
Currently, the state Board of Elections is virtually the only major state agency exempt from the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires state agencies to adopt rules and regulations through an open, public process. As a result, the Board can modify how elections take place in Rhode Island without having to inform the public or accept public input. The ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Carlos Tobon (H 5339) and Senator Stephen Archambault (S 229) to eliminate this exemption. No action was taken on this legislation prior to the June recess.
Open Meetings (S 381, H6323)PASSED
In February 2016, the ACLU published a report called “Hidden Agenda” in which we took a close look at compliance of agencies with the Open Meetings Act requirement to publicly post their agendas at least 48 hours in advance of the date of their meetings. Our report found many violations in this regard. One of our many recommendations included providing the public with more adecuate notice about public meetings, by excluding weekends and holidays from that calculation. This legislation would do just that. During the first week of May, the Senate passed S 381 and the bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. During the last week of June, H 6323 was passed by both the House and the Senate.
Police Practices Bills
Police Body Cameras (H 5926)
For the second year in a row, legislation has been proposed to set up the framework to ensure that the use of body cameras among police agencies in Rhode Island properly safeguards the integrity of encounters between law enforcement and civilians. The ACLU testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee during the first week of April arguing that cameras have the potential to be a win-win for both law enforcement and the community—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they promote transparency and accountability, while also protecting legitimate privacy interests during some police encounters.
The legislation contains provisions that detail when the camera should be activated by the police officer during an encounter, as well as when recording should be discontinued if a crime victim asks to do so. An important provision addresses the use, retention, and access to body camera data, stating that any body camera recording should be kept for up to three years if it “captures use of force, events leading up to a felony arrest, an encounter that has resulted in a complaint, or if an officer asserts that the recording has evidentiary or exculpatory value.” The legislation would also allow victims of police force to obtain access to the camera footage. It is in contrast to the policy adopted by the Providence Police Department - the first department in the state to purchase the cameras - which the ACLU has criticized for failing to promote either transparency or accountability. No further action was taken on this legislation after the hearing.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Child Support (H 5553, S 406)PASSED
Based on new federal regulations, legislation sponsored by Rep. Grace Diaz (H 5553) and Sen. Erin Lynch Prata (S 406) would establish a formal process for the incarceration of an individual to be taken into consideration for the purposes of modifying child support orders. In March, the ACLU of RI testified in front of the Senate Judiciary committee in support of this legislation that would help ensure that incarcerated non-custodial parents will no longer have to be put through the existing burdensome process for modification of child support and that their incarceration will not be treated as “voluntary unemployment” which puts them in further debt and continues the cycle of poverty and incarceration.
In June, this legislation was approved by the Senate and the House.
FBI Access to DMV Records (H 5211)
According to a report from the General Accountability Office released in the spring of 2016, Rhode Island was set to become one of 18 states in the process of negotiating Memorandums of Understanding with the FBI to facilitate their access to driver’s license images for purposes of facial recognition matching. At that time, the ACLU raised concerns about it, and the DMV agreed it would not participate in the program. This legislation, proposed by Representative Charlene Lima is designed to codify that refusal into law, and is an important measure designed to ensure that the privacy of every Rhode Islander is protected when they go to the DMV. No further action was taken on this legislation after being heard.
Stingrays (H 5393)
The ACLU testified at the House Judiciary Committee in support of this legislation which aims to regulate and limit the use of cell-site simulators, or “stingrays.” Stingray devices are the next step in location tracking, designed to trick cell phones into reporting location information as if the stingray was a normal cell phone tower. Law enforcement entities nationwide install and operate stingrays, capture the cell phone location information of any who pass by, and use the information as they see fit. There is very little information available about the scope of these programs. This legislation was proposed by Blake A. Filippi (H 5393). No further action was taken on this legislation prior to the end of June's recess.
Drones (H 5521, S 172)
The ACLU testified in the House (H 5521) and Senate (S 172) Judiciary committees in support of legislation to restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, by law enforcement. Through a combination of increasingly cheaper, more sophisticated technology and financial incentives provided by the federal government, law enforcement entities nationwide have begun obtaining and using drones. This legislation would generally require that a warrant based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion be obtained prior to drone surveillance. It also requires that surveillance be conducted only on an articulated target and that any data captured on a non-target individual must be deleted within 24 hours. No further action was taken on this legislation after being heard.
Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) (H 5531)
Legislation introduced by Representative Robert Jacquard would sanction the installation of automated license plate readers (ALPRs), capable of capturing images at high speeds and across several lanes of traffic, without including any meaningful privacy protections. ALPRs examine license plate data against a series of databases and store this information, along with the date, time, and GPS location of the vehicle. In February, the ACLU testified in opposition to this legislation as it has done in the past.
In late June, the House passed this bill (H 5531) and referred it to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill. However, no floor vote was taken on this legislation prior to the General Assembly's June recess.
Prior to any use of ALPRs, it is critical that the State implement clear and specific restrictions on the use of this technology, particularly by law enforcement. A bill (H 5989) introduced by Representative John Edwards attempts to do just that. This legislation seeks to address the use of technology and sharing of data on Rhode Island’s highways. Last year, the General Assembly authorized the highway truck toll program, which included the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs). Unregulated, this data becomes a historical record of the movements of every car on the road, allowing for a significant invasion of every driver’s privacy. At the time the Toll Legislation was approved, many legislators acknowledged the need to address this issue. This legislation would require that law enforcement have a warrant to conduct surveillance through technology used in highway surveillance. No action was taken on this bill after being heard.
Cell Phone Tracking (H5518)
This legislation submitted on behalf of the Attorney General aims to make amendments to last year's Location Tracking (H 7167, S 2403) bill which requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before requesting cell phone location information, except in emergencies dealing with the threat of death or serious physical injury. The amendments would make exceptions as to when a warrant or court order is needed, and dilute the provisions of last year's law designed to protect cell phone users' privacy. No further action was taken on this legislation after being heard.
Police Access to Drug Prescription Database (H 5469, S 656)PASSED
Just a few years ago, the General Assembly took some important steps to protect the privacy of individuals by requiring law enforcement to have a warrant before accessing records in the state’s prescription drug monitoring program (PMP). However, this legislation, which is being sponsored on behalf of the Attorney General, seeks to undo that progress. During March, the ACLU and the Rhode Island Medical Society testified against this bill stating that the legislation would leave the prescription information of thousands of Rhode Islanders open for scrutiny by police without judicial oversight.
All Rhode Islanders who are prescribed any controlled substance, including anti-anxiety medication, painkillers, and asthma inhalers have their medical information recorded within the database. Yet each of these records would, under this legislation, be available to law enforcement at the mere suggestion that they are necessary for a drug-related investigation. Individuals with chronic pain conditions should not have to fear being investigated by law enforcement viewing these records without context, nor do doctors need to be scrutinized without a judicial confirmation that an investigation is valid.
This legislation passed the Senate and the House with amendments in June, despite strong opposition from more than 20 Rhode Island medical, mental health and substance abuse organizations and was then signed by Governor Raimondo.
School Computer Privacy (H 5682, S 434)
For the past couple of years, school districts statewide have begun handing out school-owned computers for at-home use by students. These devices carry virtually no privacy protections. Some schools have even informed children the computers are subject to monitoring at any time, even by remote access while the child is at home. The ACLU is a strong supporter of this legislation, sponsored by Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy and Sen. Adam Satchell, which would clarify that the devices may only be searched when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the child has engaged in misconduct, prohibit remote access except in limited circumstances, and allow parents to opt their child out of such programs entirely.
In June, the ACLU published a report on our findings regarding the policies of the 1-1 programs -- in which a a private vendor provides free laptops or tablet computers for the school year that students can use at home -- throughout the state, highlighting the need for this legislation. However, no further action was taken on this legislation prior to the June recess.
Internet Protections (H 6086, H 6087)
After the recent passage of S.J. Resolution 34 in Congress, which will overturn a Federal Communications Commission rule that requires Internet service providers to get customers’ permission before selling sensitive consumer data, such as browsing history, legislation like H 6086 and H 6087 is imperative. Both bills would seek to regulate the ability of Internet service providers or online commercial businesses to disclose a customer’s personal information to a third party without their express approval. No action was taken on either of these bills after they were heard.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Every year numerous bills are introduced into the General Assembly that seek to expand the use of background checks in professions and or volunteering opportunities that rather than promote public safety, further push ex-offenders outside of a positive community atmosphere. This legislative year was no different.
H-6059 and S-661 requires anyone volunteering in a religious organization undergo a background check. This legislation passed the General Assembly in June and was signed by the Governor. Similarly, H-5229 would require that any individual volunteering in a youth serving agency goes through a BCI before being able to volunteer. While this legislation passed the House, no action was taken in the senate prior to recess. H-5733 and S-614, which were passed in the House and Senate, codifies into law the already existing process that CASA volunteers undergo to be part of the program that include a background check and extensive training.
H-5677 mandates that individuals hired as personal assistants undergo a background check in which offenses that do not relate to the profession may disqualify them. In a similar fashion, H-5451 would disqualify potential contractors for a broad number of offenses and H-5644 would do the same. No action was taken on any of these bills prior to the June recess.
The ACLU voiced our concerns about the breadth of these bills and the lack of consideration for the nature and gravity of the offense, the time that has passed since the offense, conduct and/or completion of the sentence, and the nature of the job held or sought.
Several bills were heard in the Senate and House Judiciary Committee related to sex offenders in efforts to once again limit the rights and discriminate against this group of offenders, making it much harder for them to reintegrate into society.
H-5159 would bar residential facilities receiving state assistance from providing more than 10% of its units to sex offenders. The bill is pending on the House calendar. H-5207 and S-55 requires homeless shelters to report the presence of a sex offender to the police. This legislation passed and was signed by the Governor in July. H-5722 would limit how many days a Level III sex offender can stay in a hotel. Lastly H-5724 requires school departments to notify parents of students whose residence is within 1,000 feet of a Level III’s sex offender’s residence. There is a good deal of irony in bills to bar sex offenders from staying in shelters or hotels. Some of those offenders are there because of the residency laws the General Assembly has passed in the last few years limiting where they can live. The ACLU is presently in court challenging one of those laws. Read the ACLU’s full testimony about the bundle of bills.
Sex Offender Registration and Notification (SORNA) (H-5503)
This legislation would impose requirements on past offenders who were not previously subject to registration and notification. This and other aspects of the bill raise numerous constitutional concerns for the ACLU and the RI Public Defender’s Office. Under current state law, offenders are classified based on a variety of factors and risk assessment evaluations. This bill would classify the offender’s risk based solely on the offense for which he or she was convicted.
As our testimony explains, sex offender registries are built on myth. First, sex offenders are not more likely to reoffend than other criminal offenders. Second, family members or friends or acquaintances, not strangers, commit the overwhelming majority of incidents of child sex abuse. Finally, exhaustive studies have found public registries to have little or no impact on reducing crime rates for these offenses. No further action was taken on this legislation prior to the June recess.
Voting Rights Bills
Presidential Tax Returns (H 5400)
This legislation, which would require Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates to disclose their five most recent federal tax returns in order to qualify for the ballot, is a direct response to the most recent Presidential election and then-candidate Donald Trump's refusal to release his tax records. While the ACLU understands why disclosing this information would be useful, that should not be a standard for determining who gets to run for President or Vice-President – or state legislator or any other office.
As detailed in our testimony, the ACLU of RI has long objected to legislative efforts to impose additional qualifications, beyond those contained in the Constitution, on candidates to qualify for the ballot (such as pending legislation from the Governor barring candidates who owe fines to the Board of Elections from running), and it is especially problematic for states to impose special qualifications in the context of federal campaigns. This legislation sets a troubling precedent. Just as the legislature should refrain from setting unnecessary barriers in the way for people to vote, it should not add unnecessary obstacles to get on the ballot. No further action was taken on this legislation after it was heard.
Prison Gerrymandering (H 5309, S 344)
Legislation, sponsored by Rep. Anastasia Williams and Sen. Harold Metts, seeking to end the practice of prison-based gerrymandering in Rhode Island has once again been brought forward. When it comes to drawing new voting districts, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the Census worker comes through are recorded as living there, including individuals awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences who retain the right to vote, but are treated for voting purposes as residents of the community from where they came. As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly, while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. Under the current plan, approximately 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston. The legislation, as the ACLU and the Prison Policy Initative testified, would rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. Similar legislation passed the Senate last year, but failed to move in the House. No further action was taken on this legislation prior to the June recess.
Automatic Voter Registration & Early VotingPASSED (AVR)
The Secretary of State's Office has submitted two bills that would make voting and registering for accessible for all Rhode Islanders.
The Early Voting bill would establish a process for in-person early voting in Rhode Island. Early voting is a key way of increasing the ability of the public to exercise the franchise. The long lines that awaited some voters at polling places in the last general election – and many other past elections – confirm the utility of this approach, which a majority of states have already adopted in one form of another. The ACLU particularly applauds the fact that this bill, in order to best promote its goal, contains provisions for early voting periods that include weekends and at least some late evenings.
Additionally, legislation for Automatic Voter Registration would allow individuals who go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain or renew a driver's license document to easily register to vote if they certify that they are eligible to do so. The passage of this important legislation is another important step in making the voter registration process easier and more accessible. At the end of May, an amended version of AVR (H-5702A) was unanimously passed by the House and at the end of June the Senate also passed this legislation. After being signed by the Governor in July, RI has become the ninth state to pass AVR following states like Oregon and Illinois. AVR is expected to register thousands of eligible voters once the software is implemented at the DMV.
To read the ACLU's testimony on these bills and others regarding elections, click here.
War on Drugs Bills
Legalizing Marijuana (H 5555, S 420)
In April, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from numerous organizations and professionals regarding legislation that seeks to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to what states like Colorado have done. For numerous reasons, the ACLU has long opposed laws that criminalize the cultivation, possession, use and sale or delivery of marijuana. While it is true that marijuana, like other drugs, can be abused, it should be treated like a public health problem, rather than through ineffective, inappropriate and punitive criminal measures. Regulating the sale and possession of marijuana as a medical and public health issue and for consumer protection is a sensible approach whose time has come. The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Scott Slater and Sen. Joshua Miller.
While this legislation did not pass, the Senate and the House approved a commission to study the potential legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island.
Workplace Rights Bills
Employer Liability (S 773)
This legislation, supported by the ACLU, was introduced by Senator Frank Lombardi in direct response to a recent RI Supreme Court decision narrowly interpreting the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act, which concluded that, as currently written, state law does not provide for individual liability against an employee who engages in discriminatory conduct in the workplace. The bill would amend FEPA to clarify that such liability does exist. No further action was taken on this legislation after it was heard.