2018 Legislative Session
Abortion (H 7340, S 2163)
With the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance in light of a divided U.S. Supreme Court, Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin have introduced legislation (H-7340, S-2163) that would codify the principles of that seminal court decision into state law and ensure that women in Rhode Island continue to have access to safe reproductive health care. The bill also repeals a number of state laws on the books that have been declared unconstitutional over the years. A major push is underway by a coalition of pro-choice organizations, including the ACLU, to enact the bill. You can read our statement on this legislation here. Click here for a printable factsheet on this issue. The Senate version of this bill is currently scheduled for a hearing.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Insurance (H 7363, S 2399)
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 the law allow the practice to continue. The uncertain status of the ACA in Congress further solidifies the need for protections at the state level. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation, H-7363, sponsored by Rep. Kazarian, which will ban gender rating in Rhode Island, regardless of any changes to federal law. Its companion bill, S-2399, is sponsored by Senator Sosnowski and has passed the Senate.
Driver’s Education (H 7156, H 7194)
This legislation aims to integrate into the current driver’s education curriculum the responsibilities of a driver during a traffic stop. That concept raised concerns for the ACLU and community advocates like the Human Rights Commission, RI for Community and Justice, and Jobs for Justice, who argued that in addition to learning about their responsibilities, drivers should be taught their rights during a traffic stop. The ACLU testified in support of two similar bills addressing this important need, H 7156 from Representative Lombardi and H 7194 from Representative McNamara. House bill 7194 has passed the House.
Service Dog Fraud (H 7612, S 2432)
This proposed legislation (H-7612 and S-2432) that intends to address fraudulent claims of having a service animal is clearly well intentioned. Misuse of this title can create real problems for people with genuine service animals. However, this very open-ended bill contains provisions that run counter to the Americans with Disabilities Act and create unnecessary confusion.
While the bill references the ADA in defining service dog, it is unclear what a "competent dog trainer" is. It also makes it illegal not just to state that the dog is a service dog, but to imply it, and no person should fear being found in violation of the law like this based solely on a third party's inference about what the person said. Further, the open-ended reference to "permissable questions" that can be asked regarding the status of a dog may encourage asking questions that violate the ADA. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified to urge that amendments be made to ensure this bill protects those it intends to help.
Tampon Tax (H 7095)
House bill 7095, introduced by Representative Edith Ajello, would create an exemption for feminine hygeine products from sales tax. Currently, Rhode Island exempts necessities such as groceries and clothing from taxes, along with a litany of inarguably less necessary items such as jewelry display products and promotional literature of boat manufacturers. Meanwhile, these products that are necessary for the health and well being of women in Rhode Island are treated, for tax purposes, as luxury items. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in support of this critical legislation to end this discriminatory practice.
Criminal Justice Bills
Juvenile Sentencing (S 2272, H 7596)
Senator Harold M. Metts and Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell have sponsored legislation this year to address the issuance of lengthy prison sentences against juveniles who are charged as adults (S-2272, H-7596). As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to access consequences.” Yet many who commit their crimes as children are viewed as incapable of rehabilitation, and incarcerated long into 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. Last year, the bill passed the Senate but died in the House. The ACLU testified in support of this important legislation, but no further action has been taken.
Justice Reinvestment (H 7534, S 2603, S 2604)
Following the passage of a number of bills improving the criminal justice system in 2017, H-7534, sponsored by Rep. McEntee and the companion legislation sponsored by Senator McCaffrey (S-2603 and S-2604), seek to promote two provisions that were left on the table. This bill would reclassify certain felonies into misdemeanors, reducing the collateral consequences for individuals convicted of those crimes. A second provision requires the preparation of prison impact statements, setting forth the estimated fiscal effect of the bill if enacted, for any bill creating new crimes or increasing prison sentences. These two reforms were approved by the Senate last year, but stripped from the enacted justice reinvestment package by the House at the last minute. S-2603 was amended and passed in the Senate, and S-2604 awaits a floor vote in the Senate.
Earlier this year, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a report highlighting this disturbing pattern of overcriminalization, The Statehouse to Prison Pipeline.
Traffic Fines (H 7594, S 2433)
H-7594, sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight, and S-2433, sponsored by Senator Lombardi, will allow drivers to receive a hearing to prove their inability to pay traffic fines, and authorize payment plans or reductions in the fines, before their license is suspended. Under current law, fined drivers must pay the entirety of the fine or their license to drive is suspended. This strict statute can trap people in poverty as they struggle not only to pay fines, but also to get to work once their licenses are suspended for failing to pay. S-2433 passed the Senate.
Between 2000 and 2017, the General Assembly created more than 170 new crimes, and increased prison sentences for dozens of existing offenses. Many of these “new” crimes make criminal offenses out of conduct that was already prohibited by existing laws, but establishing harsher penalties and more serious consequences.
This year looks to be no different, as multiple bills were introduced in this same spirit. H-7445 expands upon a bill passed last year that carved out a new offense for assaults committed against delivery drivers, to now include taxi drivers. Assault is, of course, already illegal regardless of the profession of the victim. Our full testimony on this bill can be found here. Other bills introduced this year seek to increase penalties on existing crimes. H-7390, for example, could increase the amount of time an offender spends in prison for damaging phone lines by five times, from 2 to 10 years. There is nothing suggesting that such sentencing increases are anything other than arbitrary.
Earlier this year, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a report, “Rhode Island’s Statehouse to Prison Pipeline” taking an in-depth look at this overzealous nature of the General Assembly’s approach to criminal law making.
Moral Turpitude (S 2337 & H 7764)
"Moral turpitude" is a legally ambiguous term that has caused considerable confusion in Rhode Island. Currently, this antiquated term can be found in several professional licensing statutes as a basis on which to deny or revoke a person's professional license. However, exactly what this means is up for debate. The first definition of the phrase in the current edition of Black’s Law Dictionary is “conduct that is contrary to justice, honesty or morality.” Not terribly helpful, and certainly not very limiting.
While it has been many years since the General Assembly has enacted a license using this term, it's existence highlights the need for better uniformity amoung State licensing statutes. No person should have to fear being denied entry into their profession or losing a license over this hopelessly vague term. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in support of this legislation (S-2337, H-7764) to eliminate its use from professional licensing statutes. No action has been taken on these bills since their hearings.
Civil Forfeiture (H 7590, H 7640)
Under current law, Rhode island's law enforcement agencies can confiscate the property of any person suspected of having committed certain offenses, whether or not that person is ever convicted or even charged with a crime. Getting that property back is exceedingly difficult, even if the person under suspicion is not the property owner.
The ACLU strongly supports House bills 7590 and 7640, which seek to address the problems with the entire concept of civil forfeiture and this blatant unfairness. These bills will ensure there is judicial oversight, and that law enforcement cannot confiscate a person's belongings even when they know they cannot make a criminal case against them. Read the full testimony from the ACLU here.
Due Process Bills
Juvenile Interrogation (S 2430)
Legislation introduced by Senator William Conley, S 2430 will require that a minor have a parent or guardian present during questioning by law enforcement. As one of our 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, which has passed the Senate, would rectify that difference.
“Red Flag” Gun Law (H 7688, S 2492)
In the wake of the tragic shooting of students in Parkland, Florida, the General Assembly introduced so-called “Red Flag” legislation (H-7688, S-2492) aimed at removing firearms via an “extreme risk protection order” (ERPO) from individuals who pose a “significant danger of causing personal injury to self or others.” While the ACLU lauds this effort to reduce gun violence, we have serious concerns about the impact on basic due process rights. As well intentioned as this legislation is, its breadth and its lenient standards for both applying for and granting an ERPO are cause for great concern, which is explained in detail in this 14-page analysis of the legislation.
Expulsion of Senator Kettle (S 2490)
Following the filing of criminal charges against Senator Kettle, the RI Senate rushed to hold a vote seeking his expulsion. The State Constitution gives the Senate the power to punish its members, but that power should be exercised with an abundance of caution. In modern history, the RI Senate has not used this ability to expel a member. The ACLU urged the Senate to slow down the rush to vote in order to very carefully consider the procedures used to oust democratically elected members. Senator Kettle resigned before the scheduled hearing on S-2490. Read the ACLU's full letter to the Senate.
Speed Cameras (H 7760, H 7956, H 7984, H 8005)
Generally, the major purpose of pulling over a vehicle is to address the unsafe driving as it occurs. Sending a notice or citation days or even weeks after a driver has already successfully sped through the zone negates the immediate benefit. The cameras negate any ability for an officer to make a judgement call as to the driver's actions - speeding to avoid an accident is treated the same as causing an accident by speeding. Instead officers are looking at photos from these speed cameras, unable to determine if the driver was operating under the influence of alcohol, experiencing a medical emergency or involved in any number of other issues requiring law enforcement intervention.
The ACLU was opposed to the 2016 legislation on the grounds that the law serves to financially benefit cities and private companies operating the cameras more than public safety, and we support the attempts to limit the proliferation of this revenue making technology. Currently, all four House bills have received a hearing in House Judiciary, and H-7956A passed the House. Read the ACLU's full comments here.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) (H 7233)
This legislation, opposed by the ACLU, would allow Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) to attest to a patient’s mental health condition and participate in certifying patients for mandated outpatient treatment, something that only doctors can do presently. While APRNs play a significant role in the mental health community, last year ACLU Board member Heather Burbach argued that recommendations for such a weighty deprivation of liberty should stay in the hands of physicians. Read our full testimony here.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Net Neutrality (S 2008, H 7422)
It is nearly impossible to get through life without using the Internet, which is why it’s essential that our free speech rights be protected both on- and offline. Sponsored by Sen. Louis DiPalma and Rep. Aaron Regunberg, this legislation (S 2008, H 7422)would prohibit state-purchased or funded Internet service providers (ISPs) from halting, slowing, or otherwise tampering with the transfer of data, thus ensuring fair and equal access to all Internet content. Its enactment has become critical because last year the FCC repealed federal provisions requiring ISPs to abide by “net neutrality” principles that required Internet access to be open and non-discriminatory in operation. After a hearing in the House, no further action has been taken on these bills.
Internet “Porn Tax” (S 2584)
This much talked-about bill (S-2584) would “require Internet service providers to provide digital blocking of sexual content and patently offensive material . . . and allow consumers to deactivate digital block upon payment of a twenty dollar ($20.00) fee.” In a commentary we have prepared on the bill, we note that the legislation is clearly unconstitutional. Its requirements that ISPs censor a wide variety of protected speech and that consumers pay a fee in order to access First Amendment-protected material run afoul of numerous court decisions that protect free speech on the Internet and bar content-based taxes on speech. Reports that the ACLU of Rhode Island has issued over the years -- which you can find here, here and here -- have documented just how poorly Internet filtering devices work, all to the detriment of the public, to academic freedom, and to the promotion of access to knowledge that the Internet is designed to facilitate. Read more on our blog.
This legislation has been withdrawn at the sponsor's request.
“Revenge Porn” (H 2452, S 2581)
This misnomered legislation and it's companion in the House from the Attorney General would make it a crime to electronically transmit nude or sexually explicit images without the person’s consent, regardless of the sender’s intent. The Media Coalition, the RI Press Association, and the ACLU have opposed the bill in past years since it could criminalize publishing, among other newsworthy items, some of the photos from Abu Ghraib.
In 2016 Governor Raimondo vetoed the legislation on constitutional grounds, then supported the bill in 2017 after some minor revisions that failed to address the ACLU’s First Amendment concerns, It was reintroduced this session with the same concerning language. The ACLU once again has testified in opposition to this problematic legislation, which has passed the Senate and now awaits a floor vote in the House.
Book Tax (H 7343)
House bill 7343 clarifies that an existing statute that exempts "a book or writing" from sales tax covers both fiction and nonfiction writings. While the statute is already explicit in stating this, the Division of Taxation, which is responsible for implementing the law, had determined that only works of fiction qualify for this exemption. Such content disctinction is not only contrary to the existing statute, but also raises serious First Amendment problems. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in support of this clarifying legislation.
Tax Credits for Scholarship Organizations (H 7055)
House bill 7055 would greatly expand a tax credit for businesses that make donations to "scholarhip organizations" that funnel money to private and parochial schools for tuition purposes. At a time when public schools' budgets across the state continue to face hardships, it is simply unacceptable to be expanding the aid the state provides to private schools, even if it is done indirectly through a tax credit. While supporters have argued that low- and middle-income parents need alternative to poorly performing public schools, diverting tax dollars to private schools is not the solution to failing public schools.
The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill, which received a hearing and remains in committee.
Panhandling Ban (H 8128)
House bill 8128 would make it illegal for a driver or passenger to pass anything from inside a vehicle to any individual outside the vehicle while in an "activel lane of travel." While the bill states that it is not the general assembly's intent to prohibit panhandling, it is unclear to us how that is possible when the bill would effectively prohibit panhandling as it currently exists. These are individuals struggling with homelessness or destitution and who seek to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right to solicit donations. Rather than addressing the problems that have forced people to engage in panhandling in the first place, this proposal instead seeks to punish them for their poverty.
The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill, which remains in committee.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Bills
Veterans’ Benefits (H 7204)
House bill 7204, sponsored by Representative Vella-Wilkinson, would permit the recipients of "less than honorable" military discharges to qualify for state veterans' benefits when the discharge was based on the veteran's sexual orientation. That we have failed to protect our veterans discharged because of their sexual orientation is unconscionable, and the ACLU supports this important legislation, which hass received a hearing and remains in committee.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
DACA Driver’s Licenses (H 7982, S 2678)
Over 1,200 DACA recipients live in Rhode Island and are directly affected by the President's repeal last year of the order establishing the DACA program, and he has made it clear he has no intention of helping these individuals retain this status. In the absence of Congressional action, state officials have an essential role here to protect Dreamers. When their expires, so too will their right to drive. This legislation and it's companion in the Senate will allow these individuals to retain that right. Both the House and Senate passed substitutes of this bill. Read the ACLU's testimony on the bill here. H 7982A is currently awaiting a floor vote in the Senate.
Medical Privacy Bills
Compassionate Care (H 7297)
Legislation sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H-7297) seeks to make Rhode Island the next state to adopt “death with dignity” legislation, allowing terminal patients to seek medication to end their lives. The ACLU submitted testified to the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in support of this legislation. The ACLU noted that, while some individuals facing terminal illnesses may choose to pursue aggressive medical treatment others, in conjunction with their families and their doctors, wish to end their lives with dignity. By rejecting the validity of that second option, Rhode Island law interferes in private medical decisions, severely limiting the autonomy of patients and their families to determine the appropriate course of care.
This bill currently sits in the House Health, Education, and Welfare Committee where it has received a public hearing. Read the ACLU's full comments here.
Adult Immunization (H 7882, S 2530)
The ACLU of Rhode Island opposes H-7882 and S-2530, which would require that all adult immunization medical information be included in a DOH database unless the person opts out. The DOH has already shown that it does not consider patient confidentiality a priority, as just last year they supported legislation giving law enforcement access to the Department’s prescription drug monitoring database without a warrant, and just this year has proposed multiple regulations expanding third party access to other large agency databases with confidential patient information.
This proposed registry is yet another warehouse of private health data for which there is no reason to believe will remain entirely confidential. The ACLU believes that when it comes to important medical information, it should be up to the patient to opt in, rather than impose the burden on them to opt out. This legislation has been heard and moved out of committee in the Senate and awaits a floor vote. Read the ACLU's full testimony here.
Maternal Mental Health (H 7695)
House bill 7695 would require women be given a mental health screening before being discharged from a birthing facility. While addressing the serious issue of maternal mental health disorders is a laudable goal, this particular bill would set a troubling precedent for the privacy and treatment of new moms in Rhode Island.
Among many issues, the ACLU takes issue with the requirement of the screenings and believes they should be done with consent and not on an automatic and mandatory basis. The experience of giving birth is difficult enough for the mother, with or without a history of mental health disorders, only to then be put through a screening process to prove her mental fitness before leaving the hospital with her baby. It is worth noting that no fathers, even those with known, serious mental health problems, are required to undergo such a screening before bringing their child home. The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill. After receiving a hearing, no further action has been taken.
Death Certificate Gender Identity (H 7765)
The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in support of legislation by Rep. Ajello, which will require that a death certificate reflect the decedent's gender identity. This bill provides guidelines to the person filling out a death certificate for how to navigate a situation in which a decedent’s transgender identification differed from that at birth or where a decedent’s physical characteristics did not correlate with the decedents self-identified gender.
As only a small percentage of self-identified transgender individuals undergo gender reassignment surgery, physical characteristics are not a definitive way to determine gender identity. This bill will ensure that we are respecting every individual's identiy and wishes upon their death. No action has been taken on this bill since it was heard.
Open Government Bills
Access to Public Records (H 7601, S 2422)
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 in support of H-7601, which would make it easier for the public to obtain documents of public concern, and supports its companion legislation, S-2422. 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 action has been taken on these bills since they were heard.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners (S 2268, H 7182)
Legislation sponsored by Senator Erin Lynch Prata (S 2268) and Rep. Edith Ajello (H 7182) would 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 restricts shackling pregnant women during transport to a medical facility and during labor, this legislation will also prohibit shackling to or from a court proceeding during an inmate’s third trimester. The bill passed the Senate last year, but died in the House. Read more about what the ACLU says about these bills. An amended version of this bill passed the Senate.
Civil Death (H 7466, S 2269)
S-2269, sponsored by Senator Goldin, and H-7466 sponsored by Representative Ajello would repeal the archaic statute declaring individuals serving life sentences as "legally dead" for virtually all purposes. As one of only three stataes still retaining this law on the books, it has continued to be put to use, as a recent case shows, where the Department of Corrections initially sought to bar an inmate from bringing a civil rights suit over his living conditions at the ACI, because as he was civially dead, he had no standing to sue. The ACLU strongly supports the repeal of this dangerous practice. No action has been taken on this bill since it was heard.
Third Party Access to Drug Prescription Database (H 7867)
The ACLU opposes this bill, which seeks to create yet another exception to the confidentiality of the state’s prescription drug monitoring database, allowing health insurers, workers’ compensation insurers and HMOs, among others, to access private prescription information.
Just last year, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing law enforcement agencies limited access to the database without a warrant. That would make H-7867 the eleventh exemption to the confidentiality of this database, highlighting a serious concern for the need to keep this intimate health care information private to the maximum extent possible. This information should not become a general warehouse available to more and more third parties for additional uses. This bill currently sits in the House Health, Education, and Welfare Committee where it has receieved a public hearing. Read the ACLU's full testimony here.
Cell Phone Tracking (S 2291)
This legislation submitted on behalf of the Attorney General aims to make amendments to the 2016 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 the 2016 law designed to protect cell phone users' privacy. This bill is scheduled for a vote in the Senate.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Continuing to undermine the previously passed “Ban the Box” legislation that prohibited employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record at the time of application, the General Assembly has once again introduced several bills that seek to expand the use of background checks in professions that rather than promote public safety, further push ex-offenders outside of a positive community atmosphere.
H-2281 would disqualify many otherwise well-suited individuals from working supervisory positions as contractors for any number of an enormous list of offenses entirely unrelated to the profession. Similarly, H-2280 and S-7606 would require taxi and ride share drivers to undergo fingerprinting and criminal record checks. S-2230 would authorize the denial or suspension of a medical laboratory license for persons convicted of any felony, or a misdemeanor for which “an essential element is dishonesty.”
The ACLU continues to voice 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.
Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) (H 7541, S 2586)
This legislation (H 7541 & S 2586) 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. 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, many other states have recognized the adverse impact the SORNA provisions would have on Rhode Islanders and that the federal money being witheld for failing to enact it is much less than the costs to implement it. These provisions would be a significant burden upon ex-offenders, making it even more difficult to find housing and rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. They can only have the effect of pushing former offenders to fail, and serve no helpful social purpose.
The Senate passed an amended version of the bill.
Sex Offenders Bills
Sex Offenders in Hotels (H 7646)
House bill 7646 would authorize innkeeps to kick out any Level III sex offender living in the establishment for more than 30 days. This flawed bill will have no positive impact on public safety, instead further punishing offenders after they have been released from prison, potentially having the unintended effect of unnecessarily promoting re-incarceration as they struggle to reintegrate themselves into the community. Some of these offenders may even be living in hotels because this General Assembly has already passed restrictive residency laws for sex offenders.
Sex offenders deserve to be punished for their crimes, but this legislation is counterproductive. The statistics are clear, about 90% of sexual assaults on children are committed by family, friends or acquaintances of the victim, not strangers who find their victims in hotels. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified against this bill, which misses the public safety mark.
Students Rights Bills
Over the Counter Medication in Schools (H 7570, S 2340)
Current Department of Health regulations, opposed by the ACLU, require parental permission for students to carry and self-administer any OTC medication in school. While this absurd zero-tolerance rule should never have been enacted in the first place, legislation was introduced last year to create a statutory exception for one medication – sunscreen. This new bill takes things a step further, highlighting the ridiculousness of the current policy, by also allowing students to bring to school over-the-counter products to treat menstrual cramps or vaginal yeast infections without a doctor’s or parent’s note. This legislation (H 7570) was sponsored by Rep. Donovan, and its companion legislation, S 2340, is sponsored by Senator Calkin. You can read our testimony here. After a public hearing, no action has been taken on these bills.
School Computer Privacy (H 7710, S 2644)
For the past few years, school districts statewide have begun handing out school-owned computers for at-home use by students. These devices carry virtually no privacy protections, allowing schools to spy on students at home. The ACLU is a strong supporter of legislation introduced by Representative O'Grady (H 7710) and Senator Satchell (S 2644) allowing school officials to search the devices only when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the child has engaged in misconduct and prohibit remote access except in limited circumstances. In 2017, the ACLU published a report, entitled “High School Non-Confidential,” which highlighted the need for this legislation. After receiving a hearing, no further action has been taken on this bill.
Right to Education (H 7696, S 2181)
More than twenty years ago, the Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected a lower court ruling that our state Constitution guaranteed children the right to an “equal, adequate and meaningful education.” Four years ago, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that decision, saying it was “sensitive” to the concerns that the state’s school funding formula created unfair disparities between poor, urban schools and more affluent communities, but that it was bound by the previous precedent to reject this newer constitutional challenge to the formula.
This important amendment proposed as Joint Resolutions S-2181 and H-7696 revise the language in the Article to be more explicit about its goal, and establish the right to an adequate education for Rhode Island’s youth as a fundamental and judicially enforceable right. The ACLU of Rhode Island supports these efforts to resolve inequality in education throughout the state.
Arming Campus Police (H 7938)
Following an active shooter scare on the campus of the University of Rhode Island in 2013, every public higher education institution in the state was given authority to decide whether or not to arm their campus police. After very creful consideration of this decision from the leaders of these institutions, the University of Rhode Island became the only one to arm their campus police. Under House bill 7938, all campus police would become armed, regardless of the decisions already made on this matter.
There is a tremendous danger inherent in introducing guns to college campuses. While there is always the hypothetical situation in which campus law enforcement officers could benefit from being armed, it is a certainty that introducing weapons to college campuses brings with it the very real danger of accidental discharges and tragic cases of misunderstandings and misidentifications. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified against this bill.
School Security (H 7850)
This legislation is one of many introduced this year seeking to improve school security, often by imposing law enforcement-type measures into the school setting. The ACLU appreciates the intent, but are concerned about the over-criminalization of youthful behavior. We increasingly see the use of school resource officers to provide routine school discipline, often escalating minor infractions into arrests, and research paints a very nuanced picture of the effect these officers have on school safety. The ACLU testified against this bill which remains in committee.
Technological Privacy Bills
Drones (H 7756)
The ACLU supports H-7756, introduced by Rep. Filippi, 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 action has been taken on this bill since it was heard.
State Contract Computer Hours Verification (S 2660, H 7781)
Senate bill 2660 and its companion in the House 7781, would require the use by certain state contractors of computer software designed to verify the hours worked on computers for that contract. While the concept is well intentioned, despite multiple hearings on this bill, it is yet to be made clear by its proponents how the bill's goal of providing real time access to data can be reconciled with the bill's language stating the software "must not capture any data that is private or confidential on individuals." In terms of real time access to data, this presumably would involve the use of keylogging software recording anything and everything a user inputs into their computer. The bill also requires the software to take a screen shot of state funded activity every three minutes. The ACLU testified with concerns regarding these inherent privacy intrustions in the bill, which has not left committee.
Voting Rights Bills
Voter Identification Repeal (H 7342) (S 2448)
This bill will repeal the existing statute that requires proof of identity be presented when voting. This barrier to voting serves to disenfranchise the poor, the elderly, racial minorities and other vulnerable groups that are least likely to have identification or the documents necessary to obtain ID. The ACLU testified in support of bill H 7342, sponsored by Rep. Blazejewski, and bill S 2448, sponsored by Sen. Goldin. For a factsheet on why RI's voter ID law should be repealed, click here.
Early Voting (H 7501, S 2419)
H-7501 and S-2419 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 some weekend days. No action has been taken on this bill since it was heard.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 7530, S 2267)
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 on Howard Avenue at the prison, including individuals awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences who are still allowed to vote -- but from the address of their prior residence, not the ACI. 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 ACLU supports legislation sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 7530), and companion legislation sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (S 2267) to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. The Prison Policy Initiative joined us in support of this legislation. Currently no action has been taken on these bills since their hearing.
Presidential Tax Returns (S 2612, H 7877)
This legislation and its companion bill are a direct response to the most recent Presidential election and then-candidate Donald Trump's refusal to release his tax records. By requiring Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates to disclose their five most recent federal tax returns in order to qualify for the ballot, this legislation would set a dangerous precedent and impose additional qualifications, beyond those contained in the Constitution, on candidates to qualify for the ballot.
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 has been taken on this legislation since it was heard. Read the ACLU's full comments here.
Board of Elections Procedures (H 7438, S 2088)
The ACLU of Rhode Island Supports House bill 7438 introduced by Rep. Shekarchi, and Senate Bill 2088, introduced by Senator Archambault, which would eliminate the exemption of the RI State Board of Elections from the rule-making provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). As it currently stands, the Board can adopt regulations affecting the voting process without having to go through a public notice or hearing process.
The importance of the APA cannot be underestimated. People have a right to know the laws and regulations they are supposed to abide, and to have input into them. The Board of Elections is an important agency that essentially sets the rules for implementing the democratic process of voting. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in strong support of this bill, which has not moved from Committee.
Write-in Candidates (H 7729, S 2757)
The ACLU of Rhode Island opposes this bill (H-7729, S-2757), which would eliminate the counting of write-in votes for persons who have not filed in advance a "declaration of intent." Voters should have the right to have their votes tallied, even if it is for a losing cause. While many of the votes may seem silly, they are nonetheless a valid exercise of a person's individual right to vote. The ACLU testified against this bill, which currently remains in committee.
War on Drugs Bills
Drug Dealer Life Sentence (H 7715, S 2279)
House bill 7715 and Senate bill 2279, put forward by the Attorney general’s office, would impose a life sentence on any person who provides an unlawful controlled substance to a person, which results in that person’s death.
The ACLU of Rhode Island has opposed this bill for several reasons. It undermines the state’s Good Samaritan law, which currently allows individuals to seek help for a person overdosing if they provided the substance, concerned that they may, as a result of attempting to save a life, face a lifetime in prison. It also does not have any meaningful impact on the drug trade - it is the low-level drug dealer and friends who provides the drugs and who will ultimately will bear this responsibility.
This legislation is scheduled for a vote in the Senate. Read the ACLU's full testimony here.
Workplace Rights Bills
Equal Pay (H 7427, S 2475)
Despite laws to the contrary, women nationwide generally earn just 77% of the wages earned by men, with that percentage dropping significantly for women of color. Legislation sponsored by Representative Donovan (H 7427) and Senator Goldin (S 2475)sought to address the issue in Rhode Island by making it easier for individuals facing wage differentials to file a civil action against their employer, during which it would be up to the employer to demonstrate that the wage gap was on the basis of something other than sex. The ACLU testified before the House and Senate Labor committees in support of this legislation. This bill has passed the Senate and awaits a hearing in the House.