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Judge Dismisses Charges Against Narragansett Residents Under Unconstitutional Housing Ordinance

Posted: August 16, 2017|Category: Due Process Category: Free Speech Category: Students' Rights

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced the dismissal of charges against a group of Narragansett residents, landlords and businesses for violating a Town ordinance that bars more than four unrelated people from living together.  In a 23-page decision issued yesterday, Municipal Court Judge John DeCubellis, Jr. agreed that the ordinance violated plaintiffs’ due process and equal protection rights – as argued earlier this year by ACLU of RI cooperating attorney H. Jefferson Melish in a brief seeking dismissal of the charges.  The judge noted that in 1994, the R.I. Superior Court struck down as unconstitutional a nearly identical Narragansett ordinance and that efforts by the Town to distinguish it were unavailing.

Like the 1994 ordinance, the current ordinance was aimed at unruly Town residents.  The ACLU’s brief seeking dismissal of the charges on the grounds that the ordinance was unconstitutional noted that:

• Complaints against unacceptable student conduct have decreased steadily over the past four years, according to Town statistics.
• Narragansett has numerous tools to address anti-social behavior of town residents, including existing ordinances against disturbing the peace, littering, fighting and the unlawful possession of alcohol.
• The ordinance would have the effect of increasing the cost of rental housing, and ironically, creating a need for additional rental housing for URI students.

In his decision dismissing the charges, Judge DeCubellis, referencing the 1994 ruling, stated that the ordinance violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the RI Constitution and “unlawfully burdens the fundamental right of otherwise competent adults to live with whom they choose.”

ACLU of RI cooperating Attorney Melish said today: “This has been an important case, and I am delighted with the decision.  It is a vindication of the due process and equal protection rights of landlords and tenants in Narragansett under the Rhode Island Constitution.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today: “In the intervening 23 years since the 1994 decision, nothing substantial has changed that would render an unconstitutional ordinance suddenly constitutional.  That ordinance was a violation of our fundamental rights then, and, as today’s decision notes, it’s a violation now. We encourage Town officials to reconsider their position and repeal this ordinance which simply will not solve the problems it purports to address.”

A similar ordinance was passed last year by the City of Providence, and is the subject of a separate pending ACLU lawsuit.

Full text of the decision can be found here.

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