Criminal Justice Issues The ACLU of Rhode Island is Involved With - Court Cases, Legislation, News Releases


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years


Criminal Justice

“Procedural fairness and regularity are of the indispensable essence of liberty… Let it not be overlooked that due process of law is not for the sole benefit of an accused. It is the best insurance for the Government itself against those blunders which leave lasting stains on a system of justice.”

– U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson

The Rhode Island ACLU works to make the promise of fair treatment a reality for all people. All too often, the rights of those involved in the criminal justice system are compromised or ignored.  But the Bill of Rights was designed to ensure that basic procedural protections of fairness should apply to all individuals, including suspects, criminal defendants, and prisoners.

Criminal Justice in the News

  • Oct, 17, 2016: Black Rhode Islanders Almost Three Times More Likely to be Arrested for Drug Possession Than Whites
  • Jul, 13, 2016: ACLU Heralds Passage of Law Restricting Cell Phone Location Tracking
  • Apr, 13, 2016: ACLU Settles Suit Over Cranston Ordinance Barring Roadside Solicitations

View All »

Criminal Justice Court Cases

2015: Ferreira v. Wall
Category: Civil Rights    Criminal Justice    Fair Administration of Justice    

This is a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of a 106-year-old statute that declares inmates serving life sentences at the ACI to be “civilly dead.” The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by ACLU volunteer attorney Sonja Deyoe, is on behalf of two ACI inmates and the women who have been barred from marrying them because of the “civil death” law. Rhode Island apparently remains one of only three states that still has on the books a law like this, whose origins date back to ancient English common law.

Supporting Documents
2012: Gesmondi v. Rhode Island
Category: Criminal Justice    Rights of Ex-Offenders    

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.

Cooperating Attorney: Katherine Godin

Supporting Documents

More Criminal Justice Related Court Cases »

Related Legislation

Unauthorized Computer Access (H 5543, S 592)
Category: 2017    Criminal Justice    

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 that has been used to punish people who have engaged in whistleblowing activities. After the hearing on this bill, no further action was taken.

Good Samaritan - Alcohol Overdose (H 5402, S 170)
Category: 2017    Criminal Justice    

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 already 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.

In March, the Senate passed S-170 and referred it to the House Judiciary Committee where no action was taken prior to the June recess.

Blue Lives (H 5260)
Category: 2017    Criminal Justice    

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. This legislation was held for further study after its hearing and no action was taken on it before the June recess.

Human Trafficking (H 5300, S 73) PASSED
Category: 2017    Criminal Justice    

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. However, the ACLU succeeded in getting removed a provision that would have turned soliciting prostitution from a misdemeanor into a felony, imposing extremely harsh penalties on individuals engaged in consensual sexual activity. This legislation was passed in the House and the Senate in June and signed by the Governor.

Justice Reinvestment Package
Category: 2017    Criminal Justice    

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 passed the package of bills, which were referred to the House Judiciary Committee and held for further study until the last day of the session when they were unexpectedly and severely amended. Due to the last minute legislative impasse, the package did not move forward in the House. This was fortuitous because the amended bills significantly undermine key aspects of the Task Force’s efforts. A summary of all the bills can be found here:

Juvenile Sentencing (H 5183, S 0237)
Category: 2017    Criminal Justice    

This legislation aims to address the long sentences of juveniles who are charged as adults. As the U.S. Supreme Court has 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).  Click here for a fact sheet on this issue put together by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

In June, the Senate passed S 237 and referred the bill to House Judiciary where no action was taken prior to the June recess.