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

  • Feb, 02, 2018: ACLU Statement on Grand Jury Finding in Fatal Police Shooting of Joseph Santos
  • Jan, 26, 2018: New Report Examines The Fallout From Overzealous ‘Tough-On-Crime’ Lawmaking
  • Jan, 24, 2018: Groups Ask U.S. Attorney to Investigate Police Policies Governing Communication with the Deaf

View All »

Criminal Justice Court Cases

2017: RIHAP v. Raimondo
Category: Active Case    Civil Rights    Criminal Justice    Discrimination    Rights of the Disabled    Rights of the Poor    Rights of Ex-Offenders    


About This Case:
This is case filed in U.S. Distric Court against the State of Rhode Island on behalf of a group of homeless registered sex offenders (RSOs) who, because of a new state law, will no longer be allowed to stay at the Harrington Hall homeless shelter in Cranston and will instead be forced back into the streets.

Current Status:
Suit filed in December 2017.

ACLU Cooperating Attorneys:
Lynnette Labinger, John E. MacDonald


Supporting Documents
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

More Criminal Justice Related Court Cases »

Related Legislation

Civil Forfeiture (H 7590, H 7640)
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

Under current law, Rhode island's law enforcement agencies can confiscate the property of any person suspected of having committed certain offenses, whether or not that person is ever convicted or even charged with a crime. Getting that property back is exceedingly difficult, even if the person under suspicion is not the property owner. 

The ACLU strongly supports House bills 7590 and 7640, which seek to address the problems with the entire concept of civil forfeiture and this blatant unfairness. These bills will ensure there is judicial oversight, and that law enforcement cannot confiscate a person's belongings even when they know they cannot make a criminal case against them. Read the full testimony from the ACLU here

Moral Turpitude (S 2337 & H 7764)
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

 "Moral turpitude" is a legally ambiguous term that has caused considerable confusion in Rhode Island. Currently, this antiquated term can be found in several professional licensing statutes as a basis on which to deny or revoke a person's professional license. However, exactly what this means is up for debate. The first definition of the phrase in the current edition of Black’s Law Dictionary is “conduct that is contrary to justice, honesty or morality.” Not terribly helpful, and certainly not very limiting.

While it has been many years since the General Assembly has enacted a license using this term, it's existence highlights the need for better uniformity amoung State licensing statutes.  No person should have to fear being denied entry into their profession or losing a license over this hopelessly vague term.  The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in support of this legislation (S-2337, H-7764) to eliminate its use from professional licensing statutes. No action has been taken on these bills since their hearings.

Criminal Offenses
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

Between 2000 and 2017, the General Assembly created more than 170 new crimes, and increased prison sentences for dozens of existing offenses. Many of these “new” crimes make criminal offenses out of conduct that was already prohibited by existing laws, but establishing harsher penalties and more serious consequences.

This year looks to be no different, as multiple bills were introduced in this same spirit. H-7445 expands upon a bill passed last year that carved out a new offense for assaults committed against delivery drivers, to now include taxi drivers. Assault is, of course, already illegal regardless of the profession of the victim. Our full testimony on this bill can be found here. Other bills introduced this year seek to increase penalties on existing crimes.  H-7390, for example, could increase the amount of time an offender spends in prison for damaging phone lines by five times, from 2 to 10 years.  There is nothing suggesting that such sentencing increases are anything other than arbitrary.

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a report, “Rhode Island’s Statehouse to Prison Pipeline” taking an in-depth look at this overzealous nature of the General Assembly’s approach to criminal law making.

Traffic Fines (H 7594, S 2433)
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

H-7594, sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight, and S-2433, sponsored by Senator Lombardi, will allow drivers to receive a hearing to prove their inability to pay traffic fines, and authorize payment plans or reductions in the fines, before their license is suspended. Under current law, fined drivers must pay the entirety of the fine or their license to drive is suspended. This strict statute can trap people in poverty as they struggle not only to pay fines, but also to get to work once their licenses are suspended for failing to pay. S-2433 is scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate.

Justice Reinvestment (H 7534, S 2603, S 2604)
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

Following the passage of a number of bills improving the criminal justice system in 2017, H-7534, sponsored by Rep. McEntee and the companion legislation sponsored by Senator McCaffrey (S-2603 and S-2604), seek to promote two provisions that were left on the table. This bill would reclassify certain felonies into misdemeanors, reducing the collateral consequences for individuals convicted of those crimes. A second provision requires the preparation of prison impact statements, setting forth the estimated fiscal effect of the bill if enacted, for any bill creating new crimes or increasing prison sentences. These two reforms were approved by the Senate last year, but stripped from the enacted justice reinvestment package by the House at the last minute. S-2603 has passed out of committee and awaits a floor vote, and S-2604 is scheduled for a public hearing. 

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a report highlighting this disturbing pattern of overcriminalization, The Statehouse to Prison Pipeline.

Juvenile Sentencing (S 2272, H 7596)
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

Senator Harold M. Metts and Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell have sponsored legislation this year to address the issuance of lengthy prison sentences against juveniles who are charged as adults (S-2272, H-7596). As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to access consequences.” Yet many who commit their crimes as children are viewed as incapable of rehabilitation, and incarcerated long into 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. Last year, the bill passed the Senate but died in the House. The ACLU testified in support of this important legislation, but no further action has been taken.