September/October 2012 Newsletter
Volume: XVIII, Issue Number: 4
New Publications Available
The Rhode Island ACLU has taken advantage of the summer months to compose several new brochures on timely civil liberties issues of interest to Rhode Islanders. Among the brochures available are pamphlets about voting rights and the state’s new voter ID law, a brochure explaining the new open records law that took effect on September 1st, and the rights of public school students as classes begin again. See page 3 for more information about these publications.
Save the Date: 2012 Annual Dinner Celebration
Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 7:00 PM Grand Ballroom ~ Providence Biltmore Please join us as at our Annual Dinner meeting as we honor State Senator Rhoda Perry as the “Raymond J. Pettine Civil Libertarian of the Year,” and present ACLU volunteer attorney Mark Freel with the “William G. McLoughlin First Amendment Award.” The guest speaker will be Michael W. Macleod-Ball, ACLU Washington Legislative Office Chief of Staff and First Amendment Counsel, who will be in a unique position to discuss the civil liberties ramifications of the just-concluded November elections. Invitations will be sent out and information will be posted on www.riaclu.org as the event draws closer.
ACLU Monitors Police Practices
Over the past few months, the Affiliate has found itself deeply involved in monitoring a number of police practices. It appears that troubling national law enforcement trends have been sprouting up across Rhode Island. More detailed summaries of our work can be found on pages 4 and 5, but here are two highlights:
Automatic License Plate Readers – The Rhode Island ACLU joined ACLU Affiliates in 35 other states and Washington, DC in filing open records requests to ascertain how law enforcement agencies use automatic license plate readers to track and record Americans’ movements. Among the concerns raised by the ACLU are the potential for routine, widespread and unregulated tracking and surveillance of motorists. “
Stop and Frisk” Programs - The New York ACLU made national headlines several months ago when they came out with a report that police officers’ “stop and frisk” programs overwhelmingly affected law-abiding African American and Latino citizens. When the Providence Police Department announced plans for an aggressive stop and frisk program of its own that would also likely target minority youth, the ACLU immediately jumped into the fray and helped put to a halt to this very dangerous proposal.
From the Desk of the Executive Director
It may not be the best PR for the ACLU to highlight cases defending sex offenders, but the lawsuit we filed in July against a state law barring people convicted of sex offenses from residing within 300 feet of a school epitomizes the foolishness and demagoguery behind so much criminal “justice” legislation. Sex offenders are an easy target for politicians, but the law we have challenged is not only ineffective, it is blatantly counter-productive. When the local rape crisis center and the state’s own sex offender management board agree with the ACLU that it’s a bad idea and likely to decrease public safety, one has to ask: what was the General Assembly thinking? We can only guess. Not one person testified in support of the bill, but it still whizzed through both Houses unanimously in the final days of the 2008 session. In actuality, voting for bills like these is not being “tough” on crime; it’s being irresponsible on crime. By offering “solutions” to crime issues that only make the problems worse, politicians set dangerous precedents for us all. Handling suits like this may not make us popular, but they form the core of our mission and, ironically, place us in the role of doing a better job of protecting the public than the politicians who are more interested in exploiting fear.
— Steven Brown
ACLU Files Lawsuit Over Residency Restriction for Sex Offenders
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law that makes it a felony for any person required to register as a sex offender to reside within 300 feet of any school. In response, the defendants have agreed to hold off enforcing the law until a court decision on the suit is issued. Across the country, experts involved in the treatment of sex offenders, as well as victims’ rights groups, have opposed sex offender residency laws as being ineffective, counter-productive, and potentially more, rather than less, harmful to public safety. The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Katherine Godin, is on behalf of three plaintiffs who face potential homelessness if the law is enforced against them.
Two of the plaintiffs reside in Warren Manor II, a Providence facility operated by NRI Community Services, a non-profit provider of mental health and substance abuse treatment. The plaintiffs have developmental disabilities and rely on the staff there to assist them with medication, meals and various other daily activities. They have lived at the facility for three or more years. The suit alleges that, if forced to leave, they are “unlikely to find and be placed in a comparable assisted living facility.” They are designated at the lowest level offender classifications, and are not subject to community notification requirements. The third plaintiff is a veteran with medical problems that would likely leave him homeless or hospitalized if forced to leave his apartment.
Among the local and national groups that have publicly raised concerns about broad sex offender residency laws are the RI Disability Law Center, the RI Coalition for the Homeless, Day One Rhode Island, the American Correctional Association, and the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. A year before the Rhode Island law was enacted, the state’s Sex Offender Management Task Force drafted a statement on residency restrictions that noted that “research shows that sex offenders with residential and family stability (which can be disrupted by such restrictions) are less likely to commit new sex offenses.” Other groups have noted that laws like these perpetuate the myth that most child sex offenses are committed by strangers, when in fact the overwhelming majority are committed by relatives and other people the child knows.
Even though the plaintiffs had been in their residences for some time with the full knowledge of probation and police officials, the Providence Police Department notified them in July that if they did not move out within 30 days, they risked being arrested and charged with a felony for violating the statute. The lawsuit raises a number of constitutional objections to the law. A court hearing will likely be held in the fall. In the meantime, the law is not being enforced.
RI ACLU Publishes Several New Brochures on Civil Liberties
The Affiliate has recently published a number of new know-your-rights brochures. These materials are available online at www.riaclu.org. To request paper copies, please call the office at (401) 831-7171.
Know Your Rights: Voting Materials Available:
Despite strong opposition from the Rhode Island ACLU and many other groups, voters will be required to show some form of identification at the polls this fall. In preparation for the upcoming election, the ACLU has published a brochure and a postcard designed to inform voters of their rights under the new law and to attempt to reduce confusion at the polls. The brochure provides detailed explanations about who can vote, registering to vote, early voting, Election Day voting, ID requirements, and dealing with problems at the polls. The postcard, available in both English and Spanish, provides a more succinct explanation of the voter ID law in particular. It lists the acceptable forms of photo and non-photo ID and includes quick tips for voters. If you would like to distribute this information to your family, friends, faith community, or neighborhood organization, please contact the office at (401) 831-7171.
Back to School - New Students' Rights Brochures:
With classes back in full swing, the ACLU has published two new brochures with information on students’ rights. The information applies to public school students in Rhode Island:
Know Your Rights: School Dress Codes
People often express who they are and what they believe by what they wear. Because students maintain certain constitutional rights to free expression when they are in school, their decisions about their appearance are, to some extent, protected as well. This brochure answers questions about uniforms, political and religious clothing, and even hairstyles.
Know Your Rights: Students and Technology
Most young people visit popular social media sites like Facebook, You Tube, and Twitter every day. It goes without saying that these activities tend to involve a lot of sharing of personal information over the Internet. There are many questions surrounding the ways in which a public school can access this information, or even if they can discipline you for it. This brochure answers questions about how a student’s online activity can affect them at school.
ACLU Offers How-To Advice on Revised Open Records Law:
With numerous amendments to the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) having taken effect on September 1st, the Rhode Island ACLU has published a brochure advising people of their rights under the statute. The brochure is posted on the Affiliate’s website for viewing or downloading. Copies are also available by calling the ACLU office. The website contains additional information explaining in detail how people can go about requesting records from public bodies under the revised law. The amendments approved this year to strengthen APRA followed years of negotiation between open government groups, law enforcement, and the Attorney General’s office. While technology has advanced, making the release of public documents much simpler, APRA had not been updated in more than a dozen years and had loopholes that were exploited by some government agencies. As a result, Rhode Islanders had a comparatively weak tool for holding their government accountable. The revised law makes significant improvements in expanding the types of records that are available to the public, eases the procedures for making requests for records, requires training of public information officers, and holds public bodies more accountable for violations of the law. The detailed additions to the Affiliate web site include information on where to request open records, APRA costs, a template request letter, and numerous other reference materials.
ACLU Monitors Police Practices
Providence Police Department Withdraws "Stop and Frisk" Plan
The ACLU and six other organizations sent a letter to Providence Commissioner of Public Safety Steven Pare, criticizing the city police department’s plans to engage in an aggressive “stop and frisk” program in response to a recent spate of gun violence in the city. Deploring the racial profiling inherent in such police practices, the groups’ letter stated: “Stepping up the humiliating and dehumanizing questioning and frisking of our minority youth without cause is a simplistic approach to a complex problem and one that we believe will do more harm than good.” A day after the letter was sent, the Police Department backtracked and indicated it would not go through with its plans.
The letter had emphasized that the groups didn’t “minimize the difficulties faced by police in dealing with the proliferation of guns, but practices that only increase the harassment that innocent black, Latino and Southeast Asian teenagers already face on a daily basis from police officers is no solution.” The organizations added that a lack of trust between the police and minority communities would only be exacerbated by a stop and frisk program, and would likely make it more difficult for the police to find witnesses who were at the scenes of some of the city’s tragic recent murders. The other groups that signed the letter were: Providence Youth Student Movement, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Youth in Action, RI Public Defender, and the American Friends Service Committee - South East New England.
Rhode Island ACLU Seeks Details on Automatice License Plate Readers as Part of Massive Nationwide Request
The Rhode Island ACLU has joined with affiliates in 35 other states and Washington, DC in filing open records requests with local police departments and state agencies to find out whether and how they use automatic license plate readers (ALPR) to track and record drivers’ movements. ALPRs are cameras mounted on patrol cars (or sometimes on stationary objects along roads) that snap a photograph of every license plate that enters their fields of view. Typically, each photo is time, date, and GPS-stamped, stored, and sent to a database, which provides an alert to a patrol officer whenever a match or “hit” appears.
In Rhode Island, the ACLU is aware that at least one police department – Providence – uses this technology. In addition, a bill introduced this year in the Rhode Island General Assembly would have further sanctioned the installation of ALPRs on police cruisers as a way to detect and pursue uninsured motorists. The ACLU strongly opposed the bill, which died in committee. ALPRs are spreading rapidly around the country, but the public has little information about how they are used to track motorists’ movements, including how long data collected by ALPRs is stored, and whether police departments pool this information in state, regional or national databases. ALPRs can be used as a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance and to collect and store information not just on people suspected of crimes, but on every single motorist. In addition to filing a detailed open records request with the Providence Police Department to obtain information on how it is using ALPRs, the RI ACLU filed requests with the state’s seven other city police departments, the State Police and the state agency that administers federal criminal justice grants in order to find out if any of them are using, or have plans to purchase, ALPR equipment. Maine and New Hampshire have enacted laws to strictly limit the use of ALPR technology. Based on the results of the open records requests, the RI ACLU may seek to introduce similar legislation in the General Assembly in 2013. More information about the nationwide effort is available at: www.aclu.org/plates.
Police Departments Urged to Adopt Policies on Public Recording of Police Activities
The Rhode Island ACLU has called on police departments in the state to adopt clear policies recognizing the First Amendment right of members of the public to video and tape record police activity. In a letter sent to police chiefs in Rhode Island, the ACLU noted recent developments in the law that made adoption of such a policy an important way to ensure that police officers are aware of, and do not violate, the free speech rights of residents. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Rhode Island, issued an important ruling confirming the public’s right to video or tape record the conduct of law enforcement officers engaged in their official duties. That case arose when a Massachusetts resident was charged with disturbing the peace and other offenses for recording with his cell phone the arrest of a young man on Boston Common. More recently, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division issued a guidance letter, in the context of a similar lawsuit pending in Baltimore, addressing many of the issues raised by that court decision. The DOJ guidance letter emphasizes the usefulness to police of adopting appropriate policy and training requirements on this issue in order to prevent constitutional violations. The Affiliate is currently investigating a complaint about a police department that allegedly seized a bystander’s cell phone during an altercation at a bar. The letter to police chiefs encouraged the adoption of formal police department policies to avoid problematic incidents like that. Among other things, the DOJ’s detailed guidance letter, which the ACLU provided to the police departments, encourages the adoption of police department policies that: affirmatively set forth the First Amendment right of members of the public to record police activity; describe the range of prohibited responses by police to individuals observing or recording police activity; provide clear guidance on supervisory review; and describe and define the limited circumstances when police may lawfully seize recording devices or deem an individual’s conduct to interfere with police duties.
Groups Join In Opposition to Proposed Providence Curfew Ordinance
The ACLU and other community and civil rights organizations have urged the Providence City Council to reject a proposal from Councilman Davian Sanchez to institute a nighttime curfew for juveniles. In a letter to Council members, the groups said the proposal “makes every teenager out at night a criminal suspect.” As this newsletter went to press, Councilman Sanchez was also being urged by the groups to withdraw the ordinance in light of the controversy it had generated.
The letter acknowledged the good intentions behind the proposal, but said “its enactment will exacerbate community relations between the police and the city’s youth.” Besides the ACLU, the letter was signed by Youth in Action, Providence Youth Student Movement, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, Olneyville Neighborhood Association, and the Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition. Excerpts from the letter appear below:
“[Juvenile curfew ordinances] make perfectly innocent activity – walking, talking or traveling outside – illegal. By doing so, they give police virtually unbridled discretion to stop, detain, harass and search teenagers. This can only encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. After all, since the only determinant of whether a person is committing this ‘offense’ is whether he or she is a certain age, police can stop any young-looking person they choose as a potential violator and demand proof of their age. Since such proof is something that many youth are unlikely to have, brief stops can escalate into confrontational encounters, creating crimes where none existed before… “
Curfew ordinances are generally ineffective in any event. To the extent they are designed to address juvenile crime, teenagers engaged in gang or other criminal activities will either ignore the curfew or change their time of doing business; it is the thousands of law-abiding teenagers who truly end up getting punished. Further, studies have consistently demonstrated that the majority of juvenile crime occurs after school hours, not late at night, and, as a federal report notes, ‘afterschool programs have more crime reduction potential than do juvenile curfews.’ “We certainly understand the City’s interest in seeking to protect teenagers from violence at night, but it should be up to parents, not police, to enforce curfews for their children.”
“Recent initiatives announced from the Mayor’s office – such as working to increase funding and expand programming for recreation centers and other youth programs– will do far more to both help the City’s youth and reduce crime.”
Groups Denounce "Zero Tolerance" Medication Proposal for Students
The ACLU and nine other organizations have submitted testimony objecting to proposed Department of Health regulations that would reinstate a “zero tolerance” scheme for students possessing any over-the-counter medications in school without advance written parental authorization. Noting that the policy would apply to students carrying “a Tums, a Tylenol or a skin cream,” the groups called the proposal “unnecessary and extremely problematic” and urged its rejection. The Department has taken no final action yet on the proposal.
Controversial Providence Charter Proposals Rejected
Heeding concerns raised by the ACLU, the Providence City Council has rejected two City Charter changes that had been proposed by a decennial charter review commission. One of the proposals could have essentially allowed the Mayor and the City Council to flout any laws they wished to, the ACLU had argued in testimony. It provided that: “No contracts, agreements, ordinances, resolutions, rules or regulations, and/or by-laws shall limit, abridge or in any way impede the authority of the mayor and/or the council of the city to exercise organizational and managerial discretion to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents, and to maintain the fiscal health of the city.” Agreeing with the ACLU on another matter, the Council also rejected a proposal that would have allowed certain city legal notices to be posted solely online, without any newspaper notice.
Couples Say "I Don't" to State's Civil Union Law
According to statistics obtained by the ACLU from the RI Department of Health, a total of only 68 couples obtained civil union licenses in the first year of the law. From January to June of this year, only 11 couples obtained civil union licenses. By contrast, when civil union laws took effect in 2012 in two states with similar populations to Rhode Island, Hawaii reported the issuance of at least 106 civil union licenses, and Delaware reported more than 85, in the first month alone. A major reason the Rhode Island law has been shunned is due to the inclusion of an extremely broad “religious” exemption in the law that significantly undercuts its purpose. The ACLU and marriage equality supporters opposed passage of the “civil union” bill in 2011, and hope to use these statistics to convince the General Assembly that only passage of a true marriage law will suffice.
ACLU Appeals FBI Stonewalling on Controversial Ethnic Mapping Program
The Rhode Island ACLU, in conjunction with its counterpart in Maine, has appealed the FBI’s refusal to release virtually any information that might indicate to what extent a federal program that allows for ethnic and racial mapping of local communities may be resulting in racial profiling in the two states. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed almost two years ago to learn about the controversial program, the two Affiliates received mostly blank pages from the FBI, leading to this appeal.
In the Courts
Town Parking Dispute Settled
The Narragansett Town Council has tentatively agreed to resolve an ACLU lawsuit filed on behalf of three URI students who received tickets for parking their cars overnight on their street even though they had a permit to do so. The police claimed that overnight parking was limited to “permanent residents,” defined as persons who had leases of twelve months or longer. However, neither the ordinance nor the permit made such a distinction. The ACLU argued this was just the latest in a series of police efforts to unnecessarily harass URI students living there. The Town has agreed to revise the ordinance to ensure fair implementation, and to refund the plaintiffs’ ticket fines, and pay attorneys’ fees.
Supreme Court Asked to Review Death Penalty Case
The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to review a federal appeals court decision that overturned Governor Lincoln Chafee’s efforts to prevent the institution of federal death penalty charges against Jason Wayne Pleau. The ACLU had filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the Governor’s position. However, by a 3-2 vote, the First Circuit ruled that Chafee had no authority to withhold the release of Pleau to federal authorities. Pleau has already agreed to serve a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on state charges. Rhode Island has not carried out a death sentence in more than 150 years.
Judge Throws Out Illegally Seized Cellphone Evidence
In an important victory for the Fourth Amendment, a Rhode Island judge has recognized the constitutional implications for citizens’ privacy when police fail to obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a cell phone. In a precedent-setting opinion, R.I. Superior Court Judge Judith Savage barred the use against a defendant of cell phone information unlawfully obtained by Cranston police. The opinion makes note of ACLU legislation, vetoed in June by Governor Chafee, that sought to limit police access to the content of arrestees' cell phones without a warrant. The Attorney General is expected to appeal.
ACLU Celebrates and Educates With Numerous Events
Pride Fest - June 16th In 1976, the RI ACLU took on the case Toward a Gayer Bicentennial Committee v. McQueeney after Providence police denied a permit for a gay pride parade. As a result of the lawsuit, a federal judge issued a restraining order allowing the state’s first gay pride parade to proceed. 2012 marked the 36th year this celebration has occurred! Volunteers, board members, and staff distributed information to, and spoke with, festival attendees at our busy booth.
Young Professionals' Trivia Night - May 31st The Rhode Island ACLU hosted a fun-filled trivia night for young professionals on May 31st. Teams competed through two rounds of general trivia, two rounds of civil liberties trivia, and two “final death” questions.
Annual Legislative Wrap-Up and Dessert Evening - July 25th Legislators, members, and friends gathered for a panel discussion with RI ACLU Policy Associate Hillary Davis, Representative Edie Ajello, and Senator Rhoda Perry. Panel participants led a discussion about the 2012 General Assembly session and took questions from the crowd. Topics covered a range of civil liberties issues. A video clip of the panel’s discussion of passage of the “Homeless Bill of Rights” is available on our You Tube page (http://www.youtube.com/user/RhodeIslandACLU). The ACLU extends special thanks to the following businesses for donating an array of desserts:
- The Coffee Exchange
- Stop and Shop
- Trinity Brewhouse
- Au Bon Pain
- Whole Foods
- Olga’s Cup and Saucer
- Seven Stars Bakery
Unite Against the War on Women Rally - August 28th The Affiliate participated in a rally to raise awareness and to raise momentum for women’s issues in Rhode Island and nationwide. The RI ACLU’s table was filled with information about current legislative topics of interest, and our work on a wide array of women’s rights issues, including reproductive freedom, protection of domestic violence victims from housing discrimination, and similar topics.
Tuesday, September 18th ~ 7:00 PM
The ACLU Foundation of Rhode Island Presents: "The Loving Story"
A film screening of the award-winning HBO documentary about an interracial couple arrested for miscegenation in 1958 and exiled from Virginia. The event is free but seating is limited. Cable Car Cinema, 204 South Main Street, Providence
Monday, October 1, 2012 ~ 6:30-8:30 PM
The Rhode Island ACLU and the East Providence Public Library Celebrate Banned Books
Celebrate Banned Books Week by listening to six local authors read from some of their favorite banned books. Light refreshments will be served. This event is free and open to all. East Providence Public Library, 41 Grove Avenue, East Providence
Tuesday, October 16, 2012 ~ 7:00 PM [Tentative date; Location TBA]
Election 2012 Forum: Know Your Rights A forum to educate the public on state election laws, co-sponsored by the RI ACLU, Common Cause RI, and the NAACP Providence Branch.
More information on the event will be forthcoming shortly; check our web site for details.
Thursday, November 8, 2012 ~ 7:00 PM
2012 Annual Dinner Celebration
Grand Ballroom - Providence Biltmore
Please join us as we honor State Senator Rhoda Perry and RI ACLU volunteer attorney Mark W. Freel.
Invitations will be sent, and more details made available on www.riaclu.org, as the event draws closer.