2019 Legislative Session
2019’s legislative session is shaping up to be eventful and jam-packed, and the ACLU has been busy making sure that civil liberties are on the General Assembly’s agenda. Since the session began on January 1, we have already testified at the Statehouse and introduced a handful of proactive bills. On our list of priorities this year is ensuring the passage of the Reproductive Health Care Act, supporting open-government and transparency, and continuing to champion key criminal justice reform legislation. We also look forward to discussion around the legalization of recreational marijuana and the most effective way to balance school improvement and success with the preservation of students’ rights.
The session began with a small victory for governmental transparency when an addition to the House Rules established that the public would, generally, have 24-hour advance notice before a committee hears a substitute amended bill. Also contained within this bill is a very weak system of investigation for sexual harassment complaints in the House. We will be proposing legislation to establish an independent process for looking into such complaints to ensure that the process is safe and equitable for all involved.
This page will be updated as the session progresses, so keep checking in!
Reproductive Privacy Act (H 5125 Sub A, S 0152 Sub A)
As the attitude of the US Supreme Court towards abortion rights becomes murkier, pro-choice organizations, including the ACLU, continue to push for the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade to be codified into Rhode Island law. The Reproductive Privacy Act, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams and Senator Gayle Goldin (H 5125 Sub A and S 0152 Sub A), serves to preserve the status quo of abortion healthcare in Rhode Island, and to ensure that the shifting ideology of the Supreme Court does not impede upon a person’s right to choose. The RPA also repeals several state laws on the books which have been found to be unconstitutional, such as a spousal notification requirement. The ACLU testified (read our two pieces of testimony here and here) in support of the critical provisions contained within this bill. Recently, supporters of the RPA celebrated a huge victory when the bill passed the House with no amendments by a vote of 44-30.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Insurance (H 5364, S 445)
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. This legislation (H 5364, S 445), sponsored by Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian and Senator Susan Sosnowski, codify this ban into Rhode Island law. While the Senate has not yet held a hearing on the legislation, we testified in support of the bill in the House.
Source of Income Discrimination (H 5137, S 331)
H 5137 and S 331, introduced by Rep. Anastasia Williams and Sen. Harold Metts, provide a critical protection against housing discrimination based on a potential tenant’s source of income, which particularly impacts tenants of color and those with disabilities. Currently, landlords can deny housing applications simply because the applicant uses income originating from areas such as Social Security, child support payments, or Section 8 vouchers. This legislation would prohibit this practice and ensure that no tenant is denied housing because of where their rent money came from.
Benefits for LGBTQ Veterans (H 5443)
For decades, excellent military personnel were forced to leave the military on “less than honorable” discharges once it was it was made known that they identified as a part of the LGBTQ community. H 5443, introduced by Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson and supported by the ACLU, would ensure that veterans discharged solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity would still qualify for state veterans’ benefits.
Criminal Justice Bills
Non-Monetary Bail (H 5088)
H 5088 would establish procedures for non-monetary bail for eligible detainees. The legislation is designed to address the critical problem faced by lower-income residents who find themselves in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. The ACLU offered suggestions for strengthening the bill in order to ensure it accomplishes its goal.
Indigency Court Costs (H 5196)
H 5196 is designed to strengthen a law that requires courts to consider a criminal defendant’s ability to pay before assessing exorbitant costs, fines or fees. Bill proponents argue that the current statute is too often honored in the breach. A video of our testimony in support of the legislation can be found here.
Due Process Bills
Animal Care Service Inspections (H 5297)
H 5297 would grant constitutionally problematic powers to both the Department of Environmental Management and the RISPCA. The bill intends to regulate “unlicensed animal care providers” by allowing the DEM and RISPCA the ability to conduct investigations, impose fines, and possibly request search warrants on animal care providers if the organizations receive a (potentially anonymous) complaint about the provider. Because of this, the bill would violate critical tenets of criminal law, such as the requirement of probable cause.
Driver’s License Fines Reduction (S 78)
Under current law, drivers must pay the entirety of their traffic fines or risk the suspension of their driver’s license. This system, in Rhode Island and nationwide, can trap individuals in a cycle of poverty as they struggle to pay their fines and get to work without the ability to legally drive. Sponsored by Senator Frank Lombardi, S 78 addresses this serious problem by providing an “ability-to-pay” hearing to authorize payment plans or a reduction in the fines owed before a driver’s license suspension is imposed as punishment. The ACLU testified in strong support of the bill.
Emergency Commitment of Substance Use Disorder Patients (H 5751)
Similar to legislation introduced in previous years, H 5751 would allow a physician to request a hold on a substance-abusing patient and provide a process for a court hearing to determine if emergency commitment would be appropriate for the patient. We argued that although the bill is well-meaning, it raises massive due process concerns and could be counterproductive to the goal of recovery.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (H 5167)
H 5167, opposed by the ACLU, would allow Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) to attest to a patients’ mental health condition and participate in certifying patients for mandated outpatient treatment, which is presently something that only doctors can do. Although we understand the role that APRNs play in the mental health community, we argued that when it comes to medical recommendations for involuntary treatment, patients are stripped of critical elements of due process when the decision is in the hand of anyone but a physician.
First Amendment Rights Bills
FY 2020 Budget (H 5151 Article 5, Section 9)
Article 5, Section 9 of the proposed FY 2020 budget includes, amongst other potential taxes on "services," a proposed 7% sales tax on "lobbying services." We argued in both Senate Finance and House Finance Committees that this tax amounted to a direct levy on the exercise of political speech, a quintessential First Amendment activity. We further noted that by solely applying this tax to lobbying, and not any peripheral services related to it, such as public relations or political consulting, the core exercise of the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances was particularly being singled out for adverse treatment. The proposal also allows the "dues" of organizations engaged in lobbying services to be taxed. Our testimony noted that this budget provision could have a significant fiscal impact on many non-profit organizations that engage in lobbying, including the ACLU itself.
Anti-Panhandling (H 5042)
Rather than confronting the issues that cause individuals to engage in panhandling, H 5330 seeks to ban the practice instead. The bill would fine a motorist for passing anything out of their window to another individual while in an “active lane of travel.” While H 5330 penalizes the motorist rather than the panhandler, the right for individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right to solicit donations is violated regardless of which side is punished. The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill. A similar bill was defeated in committee last year, and we hope to see the same outcome this session.
Medical Privacy Bills
Opioid Overdose Notification (S 139 Sub A)
The ACLU has been vigilant in opposing “solutions” to the opioid epidemic that compromise patient rights, including their right to confidentiality. It is for that reason we opposed S 139, which would allow hospital emergency physicians in unspecified circumstances to notify the emergency contacts of a patient, without his or her consent, who has experienced a drug overdose. Among other things, the ACLU noted that some patients may go to dangerous lengths, such as avoiding medical help altogether, in order to avoid having medical personnel disclose their condition against their wishes.
Immunization Registry (H 5541)
H 5541 would authorize the Department of Health to create an adult immunization registry upon which the burden to opt out would rest on each individual. In objecting to the bill, we noted that databases containing private medical information should instead require patients to opt in. We also expressed concern over the potential expansiveness of the registry and the data it would be authorized to collect and maintain.
Open Government Bills
House Rules (H 5037 Sub A)Passed
In a remarkably quick beginning to the legislative session, a resolution to adopt rules for the House of Representatives for the years 2019-2020 (H 5037 Sub A) made its way out of committee and to a floor vote within the first two weeks of the session. On the bright side, and in a small win for governmental transparency, the new rules established that the public would, generally, have 24-hour advance notice before a committee hears a substitute amended bill. However, the rules also contained an extremely weak system of investigation for sexual harassment complaints arising from within the Statehouse. Some other minor changes to the rules were made in response to ACLU suggestions.
Senate Rules (S 250 Sub A)Passed
Echoing a positive change made to the House Rules, S 250 Sub A includes the requirement for a minimum 24-hour advance posting of substitute bills up for consideration. Some other positive changes were made to the Rules based on the ACLU’s testimony. However, the adopted version also contains a new ban on signs, placards, or posters at committee hearings, rejecting our argument that the public should have the right to express their views through the display of signs.
Open Meetings Act (H 5702)
In a long overdue overhaul of the Open Meetings Act, legislation introduced by Representative Robert Craven (H 5702) strengthens language in the existing law and addresses technological advancements which have occurred since the OMA was last comprehensive amended two decades ago. Read our testimony on this bill here.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Juvenile Sentencing (H 5333, S 341)
As the Supreme Court has noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” This legislation (H 5333 and S 341), sponsored by Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and Sen.Harold Metts, addresses the problem of lengthy prison sentences for juveniles who are charged as adults. We testified in favor of the bill, which would allow juveniles sentenced in this manner to automatically come before the parole board after fifteen years, regardless of the length of their sentence.
Civil Death (H 5491, S 235)
Rhode Island remains one of only three states to still have a statute on the books which declares any person serving a life sentence in prison “civilly dead.” This provision is so archaic that the Harvard Law Review called it “outworn as a mode of punishment” all the way back in 1937. Unfortunately, Rhode Island not only retains but utilizes the statute; the Department of Corrections as recently as 2018 sought to bar an inmate from bringing a civil rights suit over his living conditions at the ACI because he was civilly dead and thus had no standing to sue. This legislation, strongly supported by the ACLU and introduced by Rep. Edith Ajello (H 5491) and Sen. Gayle Goldin (S 235), would repeal this outmoded statute.
Roadway Surveillance (H 5042)
Although the Department of Transportation has adopted strong privacy regulations concerning the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) for the state’s new tolling system, there is no law which codifies these practices. H 5042, introduced by Representative John Edwards and supported by the ACLU, would restrict the use of ALPRs and limit the purchasing or sharing of ALPR-obtained data between private organizations or law enforcement agencies.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
School Psychologist Licensing (H 5228)
Along with a number of other advocacy groups, the ACLU continues to be concerned about the barriers that broad criminal-record background checks can place on a person’s ability to obtain an occupational license. H 5228 is an example of that, as it would require evidence that the candidate is of “good moral character” when applying for a school psychologist license. With no standards in place, this requirement could potentially disqualify a competent applicant based on past convictions which are irrelevant to the job.
Sex Offenders (H 5488, H 5755)
H 5488 would allow innkeepers to kick out a Level III sex offender who had lived in the establishment for more than 30 days, and H 5755 would allow a court to raise or lower a sex offender’s community notification level in an appeal. In opposing these bills, we noted that harsh legislative restrictions on the rights of sex offenders are counterproductive and can promote recidivism by making it extremely difficult for them to reintegrate into the community.
Students Rights Bills
Military Recruiter School Access (H 5250)
H 5250 would grant access to student names, addresses, and phone numbers to military recruiters unless the student or parent of the student opts out of having this information made available. An ACLU of RI study from a number of years ago found that most school districts do not provide clear and consistent methods for informing students of their right to opt out, and so we encouraged the adoption of amendments that would better protect students’ rights in these circumstances.
Over-the-Counter Medication In Schools (H 5323)
Introduced by Rep. Susan Donovan, H 5323 would allow high school students to bring over-the-counter medications for self-administration on school property. Current regulations require school authorization; we argued that students shouldn’t need permission from a school nurse to bring Tums or Midol to school.
Technological Privacy Bills
Computer Verification of Hours Worked (H 5255)
Although introduced as a bill that would hold state contractors accountable for their paid work, this Orwellian legislation would virtually ensure significant violations of personal privacy. H 5255 would require software to take screenshots of a contractor’s computer every three minutes, which would be available to the state in “real time” in order to verify a contractor’s billed hours.
Voting Rights Bills
Presidential Tax Returns (H 5727)
We have long opposed legislative efforts to impose added qualifications in order for candidates to appear on the ballot in Rhode Island. For that reason, we oppose H 5727, which would require presidential candidates to publicly disclose their federal tax returns in order to be listed on the ballot. The ACLU argued that the ability to vote for an individual’s preferred candidate is a critical part of the fundamental right to vote.
War on Drugs Bills
Workplace Rights Bills
Sexual Harassment (H 5340, H 5341, H 5342, H 5343, H 5344, H 5345, H 5346, H 5361, H 5439)
During last year’s legislative session, the ACLU was highly supportive of Representative Teresa Tanzi’s special legislative commission to study sexual harassment in the workplace and the package of legislation that arose from it. We support the reintroduction of the legislation, which was never brought to the House floor for a vote.
Among other things, the bills amend the definition of “employee” to include volunteers and unpaid interns (H 5346, introduced by Representative Tanzi), expand the statute of limitations for employees who have been victims of workplace misconduct (H 5341, introduced by Representative Evan Shanley), and explicitly provide the Human Rights Commission the jurisdiction to investigate sexual harassment complaints which originate from within the State House (H 5439, introduced by Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson). We testified in favor of the entire package of legislation.