2017 Legislative Session
The 2016 legislative year saw some important pro-civil liberties legislation make its way to the Governor's desk and, perhaps more importantly, a great number of anti-civil liberties measures die. As the 2017 Legislative Session reaches its mid-point, bills are still being introduced so it remains unclear what the greatest threats to civil liberties this year will be. Below you will find information about some of the bills that the ACLU has already testified on and has been working on for the past couple of months.
Continue to visit our site for updates on these and other bills during the 2017 Legislative Session.
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 a hearing in House Judiciary Committee in March.
Repeal of Prohibition for Abortion Insurance (H 5435)
During the first week of March, the House Corportations 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. The ACLU strongly supports this legislation.
Civil Rights Bills
Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners (S 0282)
Legislation sponsored by Senator Erin Lynch Prata will 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 additionally prohibit shackling to or from a court proceeding during an inmate’s third trimester.
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 Rhode Island law 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.
Municipal Courts (H 5187, S 71)
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.
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 previously 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).
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 once again passed the package of bills, which were referred to the House Judiciary Committee where they are being held for further study.
Human Trafficking (H 5300, S 73)
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, and would also turn soliciting prostitution from a misdemeanor into a felony, imposing extremely harsh penalties on individuals engaged in consensual sexual activity.
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.
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 aready 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.
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 has been used to punish people who have engaged in whistleblowing activities.
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 been 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 a proposal 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 is planning to challenge that ordinance, and expects to do the same if either of these two bills passes.
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.
Free Speech Bills
“Revenge Porn” (H 5304)
In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the Attorney General’s so-called revenge porn legislation (H 5304), 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.
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.
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. that 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.
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.
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.
38 Studios Public Records (H 5347)
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 has approved the measure. 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.
Administrative Procedures Act (H 5339)
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. In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Carlos Tobon (H 5339) to eliminate this exemption.
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 includes 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.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Child Support (H 5553, S 406)
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 impoverishment” which puts them in further debt and continues the cycle of poverty and incarceration.
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.
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).
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.
Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs)
This legislation sanctions 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. 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 separately introduced bill, H 5989, attempts to do that.) The ACLU testified in opposition to this legislation as it has done in the past.
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 phonr 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.
Police Access to Drug Prescription Database (H 5469, S 656)
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 drug, 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.
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 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.
Highway Surveillance (H 5989)
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). ALPRs capture not only an individual’s license plate, but record the time and GPS location of every car on the road. 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.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Background Checks for Volunteers (H 5229)
For the second year in a row, legislation requiring every volunteer in any youth serving agency to undergo a background check was introduced. The legislation contains few specifics on who should receive a background check or what crimes could be considered disqualifying, and includes no ability for volunteers to demonstrate how they have changed since their long-distant conviction. The ACLU testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in opposition to this legislation in February.
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, H-5207 and S-55 would require homeless shelters to report the presence of a sex offender to the police, 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.
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.
Early Voting (H 5700, S 422)
This legislation 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.
Prison Gerrymandering (H 5309)
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 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.
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.