December 2015 - an ACLU of Rhode Island Newsletter


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years


December 2015 Newsletter

Volume: XXI, Issue Number: 5

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Newsletter Contents

ACLU Defends Students’ Rights Against Over-Policing

Suit Filed On Behalf of 3rd Grader Arrested Without Cause

The ACLU of RI has sued Tiverton school and police officials over an incident in which an 8-year-old girl was removed from a school bus, had her belongings searched, was taken alone to the police station without her parents’ knowledge, and then held and questioned at the police station for several hours before being released.

Last October, a student falsely told a school bus attendant that the girl and another student had “chemicals” in their backpacks. The bus was stopped and Tiverton Police officers and school officials were called to the scene. The police officers removed the two 8-year-old girls from the bus, and upon searching their bags, found no evidence of chemicals or anything else suspicious. Despite this, and with the approval of school officials, the police still took the girls to the police station before contacting their parents and without any school personnel present. After being questioned and accused of lying, the girls were released. No further action was taken against them, while the girl who made the false accusations was disciplined.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed by volunteer attorneys Amato DeLuca and Miriam Weizenbaum, argues that the student’s Fourth Amendment and other rights were violated by Town officials, and contests the lack of adequate training of police and school employees in dealing with situations like this one.

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said: “We recognize that school officials should be vigilant in protecting children. However, turning eight-year-olds into police suspects in the absence of any evidence whatsoever is traumatizing and undermines, rather than furthers, the educational mission of a school.”

ACLU Calls on Schools to Re-Examine Use of School Resource Officers

The ACLU of RI has called on school districts with school resource officers (SROs) to re-evaluate the agreements they have with police departments. The call was prompted by a videotaped incident (still image to the left) at Pawtucket’s Tolman High School, where a 15-year-old was body slammed by an SRO under questionable circumstances. The incident reinforced the ACLU’s long-standing concerns regarding the routine presence of police officers in schools.

In a letter sent to the Pawtucket school district and shared with school superintendents across the state, the ACLU noted that SRO agreements that schools sign cede an enormous amount of control to police, and that this can unnecessarily escalate minor disciplinary situations into more serious ones.

In Pawtucket, the SRO is designated as the school’s “law enforcement unit” who reports to the Chief of Police, not the school principal. The officer is not required to receive any training on addressing behavioral issues or understanding the needs of students. A 2011 review by the ACLU of SRO use across the state found that many school departments had similar one-sided Memoranda of Understanding (MOU).

The ACLU urged school districts that continue to use SROs to take responsibility for the officers in their schools and revise their MOUs accordingly.

ACLU And Religious Groups Prod Governor To Welcome Syrian Refugees

The ACLU of Rhode Island was deeply concerned by calls from legislators and others to close Rhode Island’s doors to any Syrian refugees after the terrorist attacks in France in November. When Governor Gina Raimondo initially failed to forcefully reject those calls, the ACLU and religious groups successfully prodded her to support the need to welcome Syrian refugees fleeing the brutality of ISIS.

As some public officials held public rallies against accepting Syrian refugees and even called for the internment of any refugees that do arrive here, Gov. Raimondo originally said the controversy surrounding the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Rhode Island was “much ado about nothing” and that she would “take a look at it” if asked by the federal government to help with resettlement.

In response to these comments, the ACLU of RI joined with the RI State Council of Churches, the RI Council for Muslim Advancement, and the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island to send an open letter to the Governor. The letter stated, in part:

“As the rhetoric and vitriol surrounding the issue of resettling Syrian refugees in Rhode Island increase, we urge you to demonstrate leadership on this critical humanitarian issue by firmly and publicly denouncing the rising xenophobia we are witnessing.”

The letter continued: “We believe that it is time for you, as Governor of a state that has welcomed immigrants and refugees from its founding, to forcefully affirm the view – in the same manner as some of your Gubernatorial colleagues elsewhere around the country have done – that Rhode Island is prepared to welcome immigrants and refugees fleeing violence from Syria, and that you reject fear-mongering that undermines our state’s strong commitment to non-discrimination against people because of their ethnicity or religious beliefs. To ignore these troubling strains of prejudice is to only give them force.”

After the letter was sent and widely publicized, Gov. Raimondo responded by issuing a statement acknowledging that Rhode Island would welcome Syrian refugees with compassion.

From the Desk of the Executive Director

It’s December, a time when all of us are flooded with requests for gift-giving to worthy causes, and the ACLU, I confess, is no exception in making that request.

After you look through this month’s newsletter, though, I trust you’ll agree that the ACLU is needed now more than ever.

When local elected officials call for the internment of Syrian refugees in Rhode Island; when school officials allow police to search and take an 8-year-old child to the station for questioning before notifying her parents; when state agencies demonstrate a disturbing pattern of denying open records requests on critical issues of public debate; when a female firefighter, but not her male counterparts, is terminated after raising concerns about sex discrimination – it is the ACLU that people look to for help. And, I’m proud to say, it is the ACLU that helps them.

Our legal docket of 30 cases and our strong advocacy and educational work are made possible only by the generosity of supporters like you.

As 2015 draws to a close and we consider the civil liberties battles that await us in 2016, I hope you’ll remain generous, and also join with us in denouncing egregious violations of civil rights as they arise. Thanks, and best wishes for the New Year!

-- Steven Brown

ACLU Charges Harmony Fire District with Sex Discrimination

The ACLU of RI has filed a charge of sex dis-crimination against the Harmony Fire District on behalf of a female EMT/firefighter who was terminated from her job after she and several others raised concerns that male and female firefighters were being treated differently. The charge, filed with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is on behalf of Kimberly Perreault (above), who served as an EMT/firefighter for the Harmony Fire District for 12 years before being terminated in January 2015 for purportedly being “unhappy” with the fire department.

Perreault’s firing, the charge alleges, was in retaliation for concerns raised at a Harmony Fire District Board meeting in October 2014. At the meeting, Perreault, another female EMT/firefighter, and several male firefighters expressed concerns about women not getting fair treatment in the fire department. Three months later, she was summoned to a meeting with the Fire District chief where she was terminated. The only explanation given was that he believed she was unhappy working there.

Perreault stated in the complaint: “I had not expressed unhappiness with the Department.  I hadexpressed concern that the Department was not treating women on a level field with men…I believed that I was discriminated against because of my gender and retaliated against because of my opposition to discrimination.”

After she was fired, the other female EMT/firefighter who raised concerns about gender discrimination was terminated for similar reasons. None of the male firefighters who raised concerns have been disciplined or terminated.

ACLU volunteer attorney Sonja Deyoe, who is handling the complaint, said: “No one should be penalized for asking their employer for equal treatment. Our laws are set up to protect individuals who do so, because absent those protections, no one would ever ask for equal treatment from their employer.” 

Perreault added: “I have always been available at a moment's notice to help the people of the Harmony Fire District and the surrounding communities in their time of need. A job I have done for the past 12 years with pride. I am pursuing this with the hope of stopping this type of discrimination and retaliation from repeating itself.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown noted: “The troubles with fire districts, which seem to operate like little fiefdoms, appear to go deep and wide. It is disturbing to now see discrimination added to their list of transgressions. We hope to see this injustice rectified.”

Give the Gift of Membership

The support of our members allows us to be the state’s strongest defender of civil liberties. This season, help friends and family join our community of dedicated civil libertarians by giving them an ACLU membership.

Call the ACLU of RI office (401-831-7171) to purchase a gift membership.

Your Eastside Marketplace Receipts

The ACLU of RI participates in Eastside Marketplace’s Friendship Fund. The Friendship Fund is the store’s way of giving back to the community.

Simply save your receipts and mail them to the RI ACLU office.  Eastside Marketplace then issues checks at the rate of 1% of the total register receipts redeemed.

The more receipts redeemed, the more money we raise!

ACLU Defends Free Speech Rights of Performers and Prisoners

Suit Filed On Behalf of Street Musician Arrested for Performing

Manuel Pombo has played the saxophone on Providence sidewalks for more than two decades. The 62-year-old performs for the love it and for the extra money he earns from passersby. Over the past few years, however, he has been repeatedly harassed by Providence Police officers for exercising his First Amendment rights. He has been ordered on several occasions to stop performing while on public sidewalks. He has also been told that a “license to perform” he was required to obtain does not allow him to solicit donations.

ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Shannah Kurland and John Dineen have filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf, arguing that the city’s permit requirement is an unconstitutional prior restraint of speech, that he cannot be barred from soliciting donations for his performances, and that the arbitrary discretion given police to determine when he can play in public violates his free speech and due process rights.

Pombo said: “I love to play the saxophone and I know that it has brought joy to many people. But I now live in constant fear of being arrested for playing my music, and it takes a physical toll on me.  This is not the way a city that claims to be arts-friendly should treat anybody.”

The suit seeks an order allowing Pombo to exercise his right to perform on public property free from harassment and declaring the existing permitting and enforcement policies and practices to be in violation of his clearly established First Amendment rights.

ACLU Settles Suit On Behalf Of Inmate Retaliated Against For Criticizing Prison Policies

In another free speech case, the ACLU in November settled a federal lawsuit against the RI Department of Corrections on behalf of an ACI inmate who, the suit alleged, was retaliated against by prison officials for publicly speaking out against prison mail policies.

The ACLU filed the suit in 2009 on behalf of inmate Jason Cook, whose problems started after he was quoted in the  Providence Journal  criticizing a new DOC policy limiting the written materials available to inmates. Shortly thereafter, he was fired from his job in the kitchen. When the ACLU raised questions about the mail policy on Cook’s behalf, the suit alleged that officers conducted a search of his cell that damaged some of his personal property, and then subjected him to various investigations, bookings, discipline, and unwarranted strip searches over the course of a few months.

ACLU of RI volunteer attorney Shad Miller argued that this harassment violated Cook’s First Amend-ment right to freedom of speech and displayed both deliberate indifference and a reckless disregard of his constitutional rights. The Court twice rejected attempts by DOC officials to have the suit dismissed. Finally, while denying any liability, the DOC agreed to settle the suit for $7,500 in damages.

Cook responded to the settlement by stating: “The federal court has righted the wrongs committed against me. I hope that this settlement will send a clear message to the employees of the state prison that just because a person is incarcerated, we are still human beings and have rights.”

Tune In To “Rights Of A Free People”

Annual Meeting Celebration Pts. 1 & 2

Tune in throughout the months of December and January to see the 2015 Civil Libertarians of the Year accept their awards and to learn the latest about ACLU of RI cases from volunteer attorneys and clients who spoke at the annual meeting.

Ch. 13: Tuesdays 10:00pm & Fridays 3:30pm/Ch. 32 on Verizon FiOS
Ch. 18, Providence & N. Providence: Wednesdays 9:00pm/Ch. 38 on Verizon FiOS

Sex Offender Residency Restriction Halted As ACLU Pursues Class Action Suit

A federal judge has halted, through at least mid-January, enforcement of a new state law prohibiting hundreds of sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet from a school. The order was issued in response to an ACLU lawsuit filed just days before dozens of Providence residents had been ordered to move from their homes or else face felony penalties.

The suit argues that the residency prohibition placed on the sex offenders is unconstitutionally vague, violates due process, retroactively punishes those who have already completed their sentences, and interferes with liberty and privacy interests while bearing no rational relationship to a legitimate purpose.

Both nationally and locally, correctional administrators, experts involved in the treatment of sex offenders, victims’ rights groups, and advocates for the homeless have opposed sex offender residency laws as being ineffective, counter-productive, and potentially more, rather than less, harmful to public safety.

One of the six named plaintiffs was given just 36 hours to move, forcing him to stay at various motels. Three of the plaintiffs who live in Providence were given 30 days to move or else face criminal charges. One plaintiff found three potential apartments to rent, but each fell within 1,000 feet of a school. If the law is implemented, many individuals would be forced to move into Harrington Hall in Cranston, the only homeless shelter in the state accepting sex offenders that is not within 1,000 feet of a school.

The suit argues that the law is unconstitutionally vague, as it fails to define a school, does not establish a clear methodology for measuring 1,000 feet, and does not provide any exemptions or appeals process. In emphasizing the irrationality of the law, the suit notes that it applies to an entire category of sex offenders, even if their crime was committed against an adult and even though the overwhelming majority of sex offenses are committed against people the offender knows, not strangers.

Advocates from the RI Coalition for the Homeless, OpenDoors, and House of Hope CDC joined the ACLU in announcing the filing of the suit. The organizations noted that by pushing individuals out of their homes and limiting where they can live, the law encourages homelessness. The effect is to make it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor them and for offenders to reintegrate themselves into the community. By disrupting vital rehabilitative services, the groups argued, the law increases, rather than decreases, risks to public safety.

“People affected are being forced out of their apartments; some are homeowners, have families, are sick, disabled, and some live in nursing homes. Some are family caretakers. They have served the sentence imposed for their crimes and are known to law enforcement due to sex offender registry laws. This law will further destabilize this population,” Sol Rodriguez, executive director of OpenDoors said. 

The law was approved by the R.I. General Assembly in June and signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo despite opposition from the ACLU and community advocates. A separate law already bars all sex offenders from living within 300 feet of a school.

Filings Show Immigration Officials Issue Detainers On U.S. Citizens

Over the course of twelve years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials issued to the RI Department of Corrections 462 “immigration detainers” against individuals who were identified in the ACI’s computer system as U.S. citizens. That is one of the many facts disclosed in briefs filed by the ACLU in its lawsuit on behalf of Ada Morales (left), a North Providence resident who has twice been the target of baseless immigration detainers as a deportable “alien” even though she is a naturalized U.S. citizen. The lawsuit, filed in 2012, alleges ICE and Rhode Island officials often bypass constitutional safeguards when they detain individuals on immigration grounds. As a result of these detainers, individuals like Morales have been held at the ACI for no other reason than to allow ICE officials to investigate their immigration status.

Among the other facts disclosed in the brief is that the immigration official who issued the detainer against Morales didn’t bother to run her Social Security Number through a database that would have confirmed her citizenship, and that the former field director of ICE’s regional office acknowledged that “an ICE agent does not have to make a determination that a person is in the country illegally before issuing a detainer.”

In February, a U.S. District Court Judge ruled that there are critical constitutional limits on the power of immigration and corrections officials to detain people while investigating their immigration status. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld that ruling. This latest ACLU brief asks the court to reject all the remaining arguments that ICE and the DOC have raised in an effort to avoid liability for their illegal detention of Ms. Morales. No date is set on when the judge will rule on the ACLU’s motion.

ACLU Intervention Prompts DMV to Make Changes in Policies Affecting Puerto Ricans and Immigrants

The ACLU of RI has taken action against the RI Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) over the agency’s failure to provide language accommodations to non-English-speaking applicants and for refusing to transfer the driver’s licenses of U.S. citizens who previously lived in Puerto Rico.

In July, the ACLU of RI filed a federal civil rights complaint against the DMV on behalf of Danilo Saccoccio, a recent Italian immigrant whom the DMV had barred from taking the written driver’s license exam in any language other than English, Spanish or Portuguese. The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Justice by ACLU volunteer attorney Jennifer Doucleff, charges the DMV with violating federal civil rights laws requiring agencies receiving federal funding to provide meaningful access to programs and services for individuals with limited English proficiency. In response to the ACLU’s complaint, the DMV in October agreed to offer Mr. Saccoccio the test in Italian. However, the agency continued to maintain that it has no obligation to offer language accommodations beyond what it has already done for the Spanish and Portuguese population. As a result, the ACLU is continuing to pursue its formal complaint.

During this same time, the Affiliate began receiving complaints that the DMV was requiring licensed drivers from Puerto Rico to pass a written exam and road test in order to transfer their driver’s licenses to Rhode Island. In addition to providing the documentation that drivers from the 50 States must supply, these U.S. citizens submitted to the DMV certified and translated birth certificates and driving records from Puerto Rico. Despite this, they were told they would have to pass tests for new drivers because the status of their license could not be electronically verified with Puerto Rico. The ACLU urged Governor Gina Raimondo to rectify the problem to allow for the orderly transfer of licenses from former Puerto Rican residents. The ACLU of Puerto Rico has also been assisting in trying to resolve the problem. As this newsletter went to press, it appeared that the issue was close to a favorable resolution without the necessity for legal action.

Over-Suspensions Continue; Students of Color And Students with Disabilities Still Most Affected

Despite growing consensus that out-of-school suspensions should only be used as a discipline of last resort, Rhode Island school districts con-tinued to overuse suspensions during the 2014-2015 school year, a new ACLU of RI report has found.  The report, Oversuspended and Underserved, a follow-up to previous ACLU reports on the overuse of suspensions in public schools, found that schools doled out 12,682 suspensions last school year, and that a majority were for minor misconduct. As in previous years, students with disabilities and students of color served a disproportionate amount of these suspensions.

While some school districts, education officials, and policymakers have acknowledged the need to address Rhode Island’s suspension problem, the report finds that much still needs to be done to address the persistent over-suspensions of even the youngest students. For the 2014-2015 school year, the report found that over 1,000 elementary school students, including 75 kindergarteners, were suspended from school; more than 60% of all suspensions were meted out for low-risk behavioral offenses; black elementary school children were nearly six times more likely, and Hispanic children three-and-a-half times more likely, than their white classmates to be suspended from school; and students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Plans were over two-and-a-half times more likely than a student without disabilities to be suspended from school.

The report comes on the heels of the RI General Assembly’s near-approval this year of legislation to limit the use of suspensions to only those situations in which a child poses a serious physical risk, or when the student is disruptive and other methods to address his or her conduct have failed. The ACLU is hopeful that the General Assembly will enact this legislation as soon as it convenes for its 2016 session.

Hillary Davis, ACLU of RI policy associate and the report’s author, said: “Rhode Island’s children with disabilities and children of color have for too long borne the brunt of a system over-reliant on removing children from the classroom rather than correcting their behavior. Our children deserve the opportunity to learn from their mistakes rather than potentially face a lifetime of severe consequences. We hope that swift action when the General Assembly reconvenes in January ensures that Rhode Island’s children will no longer find themselves cast out of school because of a bad day.”

Year In Review: ACLU Student Chapters

Brown University ACLU

From Brown ACLU vice president Bryce Campanelli: “This semester has been a very active one for our chapter. We have doubled our attendance at weekly meetings and have a large and sustainable club. The major initiatives we have taken part in this semester include petition signings to halt the surveillance of black activists, quizzing on the main green about the school-to-prison pipeline, and hosting discussions on the value of free speech, and the human rights concerns raised by solitary confinement. We are currently reaching out to different influential individuals to have them speak on campus. We would also like to teach a class of elementary school students about the Constitution and civil liberties.”

Roger Williams University School of Law ACLU

From RWU School of Law ACLU president Michael Thomas: “This past semester the chapter focused on hosting two events. The first event was ‘The Aftermath of Obergefell v. Hodges.’ This featured a debate on if/how the marriage equality decision affects religious liberties. The panel included a reverend, a member of the RI General Assembly, an attorney, and a law professor. The second event was ‘The Criminalization of the Homeless.’ We chose this topic because of the recent protests in Providence. The conversation centered on the RI Homeless Bill of Rights. This panel included homeless rights advocates, a police officer, and an attorney. This spring we hope to work on pro bono legal projects, conduct a canned food drive, and collaborate with other law school groups to discuss the First Amendment.”

After Inadequate Open Records Responses, ACLU And Others Meet With Gov. Raimondo's Office To Discuss Transparency

After a recent pattern of disturbingly inadequate responses by state agencies to open records requests on critical matters of public import, the ACLU and four open government organizations met with staff members of Governor Gina Raimondo’s office to discuss the administration’s handling of open records requests.

The meeting was held after the groups—the ACLU of RI, ACCESS/RI, RI Press Association, New England First Amendment Coalition, and League of Women Voters of RI—called on Gov. Raimondo to issue an executive order that calls on state agencies to adopt a strong presumption in favor of disclosure in addressing requests for public information. In a letter sent in October, the groups cited three recent incidents in which state agencies’ responses to Access to Public Records (APRA) requests were questionable and indicative of a disinterest in promoting the public’s right to know.

In the first incident, the state Department of Transportation provided an incomplete response to a reporter’s request for records related to the administration’s contentious truck toll proposal, failed to properly request an extension of time to respond, and then denied records without specifying what was withheld or whether there was any information in the withheld documents that could be released, as required by law.

In another instance, citing “attorney-client privilege” and an APRA exemption for “working papers,” the Governor’s office denied the release of any records related to the controversial hiring of former state Rep. Donald Lally. The groups called the Administration’s blanket denial of all records untenable on its face.

The third incident involved the Executive Office of Health and Human Services’ refusal to release an application filed with the federal government for additional funding for the state’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project. The department claimed the application and related documents were “still in development” despite the fact that the application had already been submitted for approval.

At the meeting, the Governor’s Chief of Staff pledged to reexamine these denials of records, and also sent a memo to state agencies highlighting the importance of transparency. However, no executive order was forthcoming. The groups will be looking for evidence of progress in the coming months, and a greater demonstration of commitment by the Governor and state agencies to the public's right to know.

Thousands Set To Lose Abortion Coverage Due To Implementation of Anti-Abortion Insurance Law

Nearly 9,000 Rhode Islanders are set to lose their existing abortion coverage because of a new state law, introduced by Governor Gina Raimondo and passed by the General Assembly in June, that requires insurers in the state’s health insurance exchange to provide plans at every benefit level that do not cover abortion services. Previously, all plans covered abortion unless a person specifically asked for one that did not do so.

The law change, proposed in response to a legal challenge by abortion opponents last year, goes far beyond what is required under the federal Affordable Care Act and amounted to a significant setback for abortion rights in Rhode Island. In renewing plans for those getting insurance through the exchange, HealthSource RI quietly switched about 9,000 customers to plans that do not include abortion coverage. In response to complaints from the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and others, HSRI agreed to send a notice advising insurance plan holders of the change and giving them until December 23 to change their plan. Otherwise, their health insurance will only offer minimal abortion coverage required by the federal health care law.

Passage of the state law in June marked the first anti-abortion legislation enacted in Rhode Island in over 15 years.  Pro-choice groups are continuing to consider further responses to this situation.

Court Questions Of Bar Applicants Violate Americans With Disabilities Act, Alleges ACLU Federal Complaint

The ACLU of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Disability Law Center (RIDLC) have filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Supreme Court of Rhode Island and its Committee on Character and Fitness, alleging that inquiries on a questionnaire for admission to the Rhode Island Bar violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaint, filed with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, seeks the removal of three broadly worded questions that ask about applicants’ past history of drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, or other disability, and require applicants to provide detailed information about any treatment they have had or are receiving.

The complaint charges that the questions inappropriately presume a link between diagnosis and treatment and the ability to practice law, subject people with disabilities to discriminatory burdens, including disclosure of sensitive health care information, and are unnecessary because they do not effectively identify unfit applicants. The disputed questions are also counterproductive because they may deter applicants from seeking help with their mental health, substance use or other disability-related needs.

The complaint notes that there are numerous other questions on the questionnaire that serve as more effective, and non-discriminatory, screening questions, because they shed light on past behavior or conduct which may be relevant to the practice of law. Those questions delve into past educational and employment history, military service, credit, and past business ventures and litigation.

Back in 1996, in response to an ACLU complaint, the R.I. Supreme Court ordered substantial changes to similar questions, but for unknown reasons, these questions were later reinstated in the form that exists today. The R.I. Bar Association raised concerns with the Committee over a year ago about the legality of the questions. The ACLU and RIDLC also wrote the Committee in January to urge removal of the questions, but no changes were made, prompting the filing of the complaint.

The complaint was brought on behalf of a recent law school graduate with a disability who said: “It is frustrating to know that those responsible for deciding whether I am fit to practice law have themselves chosen to ignore the law.  Questions like these are the reason why many people never seek help with a possibly serious medical condition.”

ACLU Offers Guidance To Police Departments On Body Cameras

As police departments begin to consider purchasing police-worn body cameras, the ACLU of Rhode Island is encouraging them to establish carefully crafted policies before using them. In a letter addressed to the North Providence Police chief, the first in the state to express interest in using the cameras, the ACLU noted that strong policy frameworks regarding their use must be in place in order to limit privacy risks and gaps in accountability, and ensure that their use leads to greater transparency and fewer incidents of misconduct.

The ACLU recommended clear policies be established regarding when police are required to use body cameras; the circumstances when cameras should and should not be used; and when people should be notified they are being recorded. The policies, the ACLU urged, should protect the privacy of victims and of individuals engaged in protected free speech activities, while also limiting the discretionary use of cameras by officers. Clear procedures regarding the retention of body camera video and access to videos by the public are also needed, as are strong disciplinary policies for officers who do not follow established procedures.

The Providence Police department recently expressed a similar interest in the cameras. The ACLU shared the letter with them and all other police departments and encouraged them to contact the ACLU office for additional input.


August 12th: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, the ACLU of Rhode Island joined with the NAACP-Providence Branch, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, and the Rhode Island Disability Law Center to discuss voting rights today. The organizations discussed how Rhode Island's laws limit the voting rights of minority voters, the elderly, students, persons with disabilities, and homeless individuals, notably through the state's photo voter ID law, and how we can work to protect voting rights here and across the country. The panel also discussed felon disenfranchisement, prison-based gerrymandering, access to the polls, and efforts to restore the strength of the Voting Rights Act.

September 19th: Five teams rushed around Providence in order to complete the ACLU’s Constitution Day Scavenger Hunt. The Scavenger Hunt, celebrating the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, led participants around downtown Providence to find and take photographs of civil liberties-related landmarks. Using the clues the ACLU shared on social media, the teams spent the sunny afternoon walking, cycling, and driving to the final destination where they celebrated their victories and received pocket Constitutions, Bill of Rights bookmarks, and Constitution Day temporary tattoos.

October 5th: ACLU members, free speech supporters, and avid readers celebrated the freedom to read at our annual Banned Books Week Celebration at the East Providence Public Library. While attendees enjoyed delicious refreshments, Living Literature performed an engaging reader’s theater of excerpts from Young Adult books that have been challenged or banned. The actors performed excerpts from To Kill A Mockingbird, The Giver, Revolting Rhymes, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to a full house. The audience and actors then engaged in a lively discussion about censorship and artistic freedom.

October 22nd: ACLU of Rhode Island members, supporters, and friends mixed and mingled at our Annual Meeting Celebration at the Providence Biltmore to celebrate another year of protecting the rights of all. This year, the ACLU of RI was pleased to honor two of our allies in our work to stop the criminalization of homelessness: the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, and homeless rights advocate Megan Smith. The Coalition and Ms. Smith were presented with our  Raymond J. Pettine Civil Libertarian of the Year Award because of their tireless advocacy to improve the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness. While enjoying cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, attendees also heard from ACLU volunteer attorneys and clients about some of our most recently filed cases.

Task Force Recommends “Good Samaritan” Reinstatement

The ACLU of RI applauded draft recommendations put forth by the Governor’s overdose prevention task force that include a call for the reinstatement of the life-saving Good Samaritan Act.

The law, designed to encourage people to call 911 for help in the event of a drug overdose, protected individuals from being charged with certain drug crimes when doing so. However, the law expired in July when lawmakers abruptly adjourned the 2015 legislative session.

The ACLU and community advocates are pushing for its renewal and expansion to further protect individuals from charges of parole or probation violations when they call for help. The ACLU hopes the bill is taken up shortly after the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Bristol Ordinance Could Weaken Patient Privacy

After the ACLU and the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition raised concerns about undue burdens and patient privacy, the Bristol Town Council postponed a vote on a proposed ordinance that would have required many medical marijuana patients and caregivers who grow marijuana to obtain approval from zoning officials, making their addresses, and likely their identities, public.

The ACLU, in written comments, told the Town Council: “[T]he harm to patients could be even larger than the loss of their privacy. The publicizing of the locations where medical marijuana is being grown may make patients the targets of burglars and others engaged in criminal activities.”

The Council delayed the scheduled vote to further discuss the concerns that were raised.

News Briefs

  • A Superior Court judge has rejected a motion to dismiss an ACLU of RI lawsuit regarding the state's medical marijuana program. The lawsuit, being handled by ACLU attorney Carly Iafrate, is on behalf of a URI graduate student who was denied summer employment as a paid intern at Darlington Fabrics in Westerly because of her status as a registered medical marijuana user. The ACLU lawsuit argues that the state’s medical marijuana law bars employers from forcing medical marijuana patients to make the cruel and unacceptable choice between lawfully taking this medication and having a job.
  • A new Providence ordinance barring more than three college students from living together in certain areas of the City unfairly singles out students and is unlikely to resolve residents’ concerns, the ACLU unsuccessfully argued in testimony before the City Council. The ordinance aims to combat concerns about noise and public drinking around local colleges. However, the ACLU noted that such disorderly conduct is already illegal, and that the incidents driving the ordinance were the result of out-of-control parties, not numerous college students living together. The ACLU is considering filing a legal challenge to the ordinance. A number of years ago, the ACLU successfully challenged the constitutionality of a similar Narragansett ordinance.
  • Responding to the release of PARCC test results in November, the ACLU and ten other organizations called on the state Department of Education to immediately reverse its policies that allow school districts to use PARCC scores as part of students’ grades as early as next year, and to also use the test as a graduation requirement for the Class of 2017. The test results show that using PARCC as a graduation requirement would have barred the vast majority of Rhode Island students from receiving a diploma.  Worse, it would have disproportionately affected students of color, students with disabilities, and ESL students in a devastating manner. The organizations called the policy reversal “a necessary step to promote a meaningful discussion of alternative graduation standards in the months ahead.” The groups are awaiting a formal response from the agency.

Keep The Flame of Liberty Burning Bright

Make a Year-End Donation to the ACLU Foundation of Rhode Island

Year after year, the ACLU of Rhode Island works in the courts, at the State House, and in communities across the state to protect the fundamental rights of all Rhode Islanders. You may often read about these battles in the news, but just as often, we are accomplishing change quietly behind the scenes. No matter how our victories are achieved, they are always hard fought and require the support of community groups, cooperating attorneys, volunteers, and you. As a partner in our work, you have helped make us the strongest defender of civil liberties in the state. 

As we head into a new year sure to bring more threats to civil liberties, stand up for your rights by making a special end-of-year donation today. Your tax-deductible gift to will help the ACLU of Rhode Island remain strong as we take on the many new challenges in the year ahead.

You can make a donation by check or credit card. Donations can be sent by mail, by calling our office (401-831-7171), or by clicking here. Make checks payable to: ACLU Foundation of Rhode Island. Thank you!