2019 Legislative Session
In a historic session that saw hundreds of advocates and community organizations lobbying and demonstrating daily at the Statehouse over abortion rights, the passage of the Reproductive Privacy Act on June 19th was a momentous victory that was 25 years in the making. After decades of work, the principles of Roe v. Wade are finally codified into Rhode Island law and the protection of safe, legal abortion is provided for the Ocean State, regardless of the shifting federal idealogies towards abortion care.
This critical piece of legislation wasn't the only important victory this session. The General Assembly also approved bills that: ensure that an individual's driver's license isn't immediately suspended after failing to pay traffic fees and fines, remove the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, and guarantee state veteran's benefits to individuals who were discharged from the military based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. But there were also many opportunities to support rehabilitative criminal justice measures and protect other basic rights that ultimately did not come to fruition.
The failed attempt to legalize recreational marijuana or to promote legislative justice for those victimized by its illegality for so long was a dark spot for advocates. The General Assembly also neglected bills promoting equal pay and strengthening sexual harassment laws. And, an effort across chambers to address education standards in Rhode Island ultimately didn't tackle significant issues and barriers affecting students of color and low-income students.
This year, the ACLU lobbied on 339 bills and tracked over 800 pieces of legislation. Below is a look at some of the biggest civil liberties issues that we commented on over the course of the 2019 legislative session.
Reproductive Privacy Act (H 5125 Sub A, S 0152 Sub A)Passed
As the attitude of the US Supreme Court towards abortion rights becomes murkier, pro-choice organizations, including the ACLU, continue to push for the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade to be codified into Rhode Island law. The Reproductive Privacy Act, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams and Senator Gayle Goldin (H 5125 Sub A and S 0152 Sub A), preserves the status quo of abortion healthcare in Rhode Island, and ensures that the shifting ideology of the Supreme Court does not impede upon a person’s right to choose. The RPA also repeals several state laws on the books which have been found to be unconstitutional, such as a spousal notification requirement. The ACLU testified (read our two pieces of testimony here and here) in support of the critical provisions contained within this bill. We also submitted a detailed memo rebutting the spurious claims of bill opponents that the legislation went beyond the principles of Roe.
Supporters of the RPA celebrated a huge victory when the bill passed the House with no amendments by a vote of 44-30. However, in May, the Senate Judiciary Commitee defeated the bill on a 5-4 vote. The Affiliate also prepared a detailed rebuttal to an alternative proposal offered by Sen. Stephen Archambault, who voted against the bill in committee. In early June, the Senate Judiciary Committee transmitted an amended version of the House bill, H 5125 Sub B, to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, where it passed out of committee with a vote of 8-2. The bill passed the Senate floor on June 19th with a vote of of 21-17 and was immediately transmitted to the House floor for a vote in concurrence. The bill passed the House by a vote of 45-29 and was signed by the governor later in the evening.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Insurance (H 5364, S 445)Passed Senate, Died in House
Nationwide, women have historically been charged more for the same health insurance as men, solely because of their gender, leaving women less able to purchase vital health care coverage. This practice is generally illegal under the Affordable Care Act, but gaps in the law allow the practice to continue. This legislation (H 5364, S 445), sponsored by Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian and Senator Susan Sosnowski, would have codified this ban into Rhode Island law. We testified in support of the bill in both the House and the Senate. Although it was passed in the Senate, this legislation died in the House.
Source of Income Discrimination (H 5137, S 331)Passed Senate, Died in House
H 5137 and S 331, introduced by Rep. Anastasia Williams and Sen. Harold Metts, would have provided a critical protection against housing discrimination based on a potential tenant’s source of income, an issue which particularly impacts tenants of color and those with disabilities. Currently, landlords can deny housing applications simply because the applicant uses income originating from areas such as Social Security, child support payments, or Section 8 vouchers. This legislation would have prohibited this practice and ensured that no tenant is denied housing because of where their rent money comes from. This bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
Equal Pay (H 5659, S 509)Passed Senate, Died in House
The substantial disparities between the pay grades of men and women are well-documented, and the gaps between the salaries of white women and women of color in Rhode Island are equally as pronounced and troubling. This “equal pay” legislation, supported by the ACLU and many other groups, is essential to not only promote the growth of our state, but to provide economic mobility for women, and women of color in particular, who are already more likely to have lower incomes than virtually any other group. Given the negative changes which occurred to this bill as it was passed out of committee last session, which ultimately weakened both the bill and equal pay protections in our current law, we urged the swift passage of this bill as written, with no amendments. The Senate passed S 509, but this legislation died in the House.
Discrimination Against Parents with Disabilities (H 5562, S 702)Passed Senate, Died in House
H 5562, introduced by Representative Terri-Denise Cortvriend, and S 702, introduced by Senator Louis DiPalma, would have precluded the disability of a parent from acting as a basis for denial of issues regarding their children, such as welfare or guardianship. We supported the legislation because a fundamental component of disability rights is the ability to care for one’s family without fear of discrimination and because families have been, and continue to be, subjected to this discriminatory treatment. The Senate passed this bill but the legislation ultimately died in the House.
Commission to Encourage People of Color to Enter the Educational Field (H 5553A)Passed House
According to data provided by RIDE, 42% of students enrolled in the Rhode Island public school system during the 2017-2018 school year were students of color. 87% of educators in our public schools are white.
Studies have well-documented the connection between having teachers of color and high achievement in minority student populations. We supported H 5553, introduced by Representative Karen Alzate, which creates a special legislative commission to study ways in which Rhode Island can encourage people of color to enter the field of education. In our testimony, we urged the consideration of policies which would bar teacher applicants from being disqualified from certification solely based on their performance on a standardized test, due to the noted gaps in passing rates between white test-takers and test-takers of color. A subsequent version of the bill, which passed the House, was amended to include more community members who have a direct and vested interest in increasing the number of educators of color.
Tampon Tax (H 5307, S 49)Passed
Although the list of items exempted from sales tax in Rhode Island is extensive and disparate, including horse food products and promotional literature for boat manufacturers, one class of product was noticeably absent and thus subjected to this tax: feminine hygiene products. In fact, Rhode Island law treated them as “luxury items.” We testified in support of H 5307, introduced by Rep. Edith Ajello, and S 49, introduced by Senator Louis DiPalma, which added feminine hygiene products to the items exempted from sales taxes. As these products are purchased predominantly by women, the practical result was a sex-based tax on items that, we feel confident saying, no Rhode Island woman views as a luxury. Independent of these pieces of legislation, the repeal of the “Tampon Tax” was incorporated into and passed with the FY 2020 budget.
Both chambers collaborated to put forth a package of bills intended to provide a comprehensive overhaul of the public education system in Rhode Island. Ranging from teacher and principal certification to reporting requirements for the schools, this legislation (H 5008, H 6084, H 6098, H 6100, H 6099, H 6085) (S 863, S 864, S 865, S 866, S 867, S 868, S 869) contained both good provisions and room for improvement.
H 6098, H 6100, S 866, and S 867 all contained a provision stipulating that aspiring teachers be of “sound moral character.” We expressed concern about the value-laden and open-ended nature of this requirement, which would be a new statutory criterion. All four of these bills ultimately died.
H 6100 and S 867 would have additionally required the applicant to take and pass a standardized written test. The ACLU has long expressed concerns about the imposition of a statutory requirement for teacher standardized testing. Not only do we believe that such testing is flawed as a method for determining teacher competency and skills, but that it will have a significant and adverse impact on racial minorities. For these reasons, the state banned this practice until 2003 and the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Positively, however, H 6098, introduced by Representative Karen Alzate, and S 866 Sub A, introduced by Senator James Sheehan, contained a provision which would explicitly bar a teacher certification applicant from being disqualified solely by their performance on a standardized test. Standardized written tests for teacher certification have been shown to have a particular negative impact on test-takers of color, and do not show the full spectrum of an applicant’s strengths. We supported this important language, but this bill unfortunately died in the House.
We also noted that both S 865 and H 6084 could benefit from minor amendments which would add benchmarks such as race, gender, and disability to the reporting requirements mandated by the legislation. Both of these pieces of legislation passed without any of our suggested amendments.
S 863 Sub A and S 869 Sub A, as well as their companion bills H 5008 Sub A and H 6085 Sub A, passed both the House and the Senate. S 864 Sub A died.
Criminal Justice Bills
Indigency Court Costs (H 5196)Died in Committee
H 5196 was designed to strengthen a law that requires courts to consider a criminal defendant’s ability to pay before assessing exorbitant costs, fines or fees. Bill proponents argued that the current statute is too often honored in the breach. A video of our testimony in support of the legislation can be found here. This bill died in committee.
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Gun Bills
The ACLU has consistently opposed the imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing terms on the grounds that they are ineffective, costly, eliminate individualized consideration of the offender and the circumstances of the offense, and place too much power in the hands of prosecutors instead of neutral judges. Four “gun bills” up for consideration this session in the House, H 5022, H 5703, H 5739, and H 5741, and three bills in the Senate, S 464, S 635, and S 637, contained provisions which would have imposed such mandatory minimum sentences for new criminal offenses relating to weapons. We testified in opposition to these provisions, arguing that the state should refrain from passing legislation that expands the use of mandatory minimum sentencing procedures. These bills all died in committee.
Although we did not testify on the original bill, the amended version of a bill, S 84 Sub A, included similar mandatory minimum provisions which we voiced concerns about. This bill unfortunately passed on the Senate floor but was never taken up by the House and died.
House Judiciary committee had approved a bill that would impose a mandatory sentence for any individual who uses a stun gun against a law enforcement officer. Fortunately, this bill was never taken up by the Senate and died as well.
Bail Reform (S 492, S 602, H 5088, H 6065)Died in Committee
While wealthier individuals who can post bail are permitted to go home while awaiting their hearings, those without immediate cash flow are forced to stay in jail until their case is heard, creating a wealth-based incarceration system. We testified in favor of S 492, S 602, H 5088, and H 6065, introduced by Senator Ana Quezada, Senator Sandra Cano, Representative Jean Philippe Barros, and Representative Anastasia Williams which would have confronted this aspect of the criminal justice system by promoting pretrial release of individuals without the requirement of monetary bail. These bills all died in committee.
Third-Degree Sexual Assault (H 5817A)Passed House, Died in Senate
This bill would have redefined third-degree sexual assault to include sexual contact between people in “positions of authority” with teenagers who are above the age of consent but who have not yet turned 18. It so expansively and subjectively defined a “position of authority” that we felt the bill could have criminalized some innocent and consensual teenage relationships. The bill ultimately was passed out of the House but was not taken up by the Senate and died.
Animal Teasing (H 6043, S 779)Passed
The ACLU has issued reports within the last few years documenting the “statehouse to prison pipeline,” the never-ending enactment of laws that unnecessarily creates new crimes and increases sentences for current offenses. Nothing encapsulates this issue better this year than the general assembly’s passage of H 6043 and S 779, which would punish by up to a year in prison any person who “maliciously teases” a police horse or canine. We noted that this legislation could have a significant and adverse effect on adolescent populations and populations with mental health issues. Despite our testimony, the bill was favorably voted on in both the House and the Senate and signed into law.
Due Process Bills
Animal Care Service Inspections (H 5297)Died in Committee
H 5297 would have granted constitutionally problematic powers to both the Department of Environmental Management and the RISPCA. The bill intended to regulate “unlicensed animal care providers” by allowing the DEM and RISPCA the ability to conduct investigations, impose fines, and possibly request search warrants on animal care providers if the organizations receive a (potentially anonymous) complaint about the provider. Because of this, the bill would have violated critical tenets of criminal law, such as the requirement of probable cause. This bill ultimately died in committee.
Driver’s License Fines Reduction (S 78, H 6254)Passed
Under previous law, drivers had to pay the entirety of their traffic fines or risk the suspension of their driver’s license. This system, in Rhode Island and nationwide, can trap individuals in a cycle of poverty as they struggle to pay their fines and get to work without the ability to legally drive. Sponsored by Senator Frank Lombardi and Representative Grace Diaz, S 78 and H 6254 addresses this serious problem by providing an “ability-to-pay” hearing to authorize payment plans or a reduction in the fines owed before a driver’s license suspension is imposed as punishment. The ACLU testified in strong support of the bill. These bills passed both the House and the Senate and were signed by the Governor.
Emergency Commitment of Substance Use Disorder Patients (H 5751)Passed
Similar to legislation introduced in previous years, H 5751 would have allowed a physician to request a hold on a substance-abusing patient and would have provided a process for a court hearing to determine if emergency commitment would be appropriate for the patient. We argued that although the bill is well-meaning, it raised massive due process concerns and could be counterproductive to the goal of recovery. After hearing objections from the medical and substance abuse communities, the bill was amended to instead create a special legislative commission to examine the effects of involuntary commitment. This bill passed the House, and we will closely monitor the commission it creates during the next session.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (H 5167)Died in Committee
H 5167, opposed by the ACLU, would have allowed Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) to attest to a patients’ mental health condition and participate in certifying patients for mandated outpatient treatment, an action which is presently something that only doctors can do. Although we understand the role that APRNs play in the mental health community, we argued that when it comes to medical recommendations for involuntary treatment, patients are stripped of critical elements of due process when the decision is in the hand of anyone but a physician. This bill died in committee.
Asset Forfeiture (H 5357, H 5721, S 229)Died in Committee
Rhode Island is only one of 10 states where probable cause is all that is necessary for assets to be confiscated in a civil proceeding, which means that law enforcement in RI 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. H 5357, H 5721 and S 229, introduced by Representatives Brian Newberry and Moira Walsh and Senator Harold Metts, would have ensured judicial oversight in the process of asset seizure by law enforcement, and would have provided for the ability of Rhode Island residents to retain their belongings without the burdens that a civil forfeiture process places upon them. We testified in support of these important pieces of legislation, but they all died in committee.
Juvenile Questioning (H 5334, S 496)Passed Senate, Died in House
It’s no surprise that juveniles are generally less able than adults to understand, and act upon, their legal rights while being questioned, but law enforcement proceeds as if they were well-informed adults with a full grasp of the situation. H 5334 and S 496, introduced on behalf of the ACLU by Representative Rebecca Kislak and Senator William J. Conley, Jr., would have prohibited the questioning of a juvenile suspected of criminal activity without a parent or legal guardian present. A case recently handled by the ACLU, in which an 8-year-old girl was removed from a school bus, transported to the police, interrogated, and detained without her parents knowledge, encapsulates the need for this legislation. S 496 passed on the Senate floor recently, but the House version died in committee.
Seizure of Animals (S 465, H 5433)Passed
The ACLU expressed concerns about the breadth of this legislation, which allows representatives of the RISPCA, a private organization, to seize animals if they appeared to be “aged,” “disabled,” or “sick,” without any requirement of exigent circumstances. This provision is a significant violation of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, and we urged the committee reject the legislation. Despite ACLU objections, the bill passed both the House and the Senate. The ACLU, along with a number of other groups, submitted a veto letter to the Governor, but the bill was unfortunately signed.
Animal Abuse Registry (H 5113)Passed House, Voted Down in Senate
We opposed H 5113, which would have created an “animal abuse registry” similar to the registration requirements already in effect for persons convicted of sex offenses. Like other bills which would impose onerous registration burdens and establish broad community notification requirements, this registry would be costly, undermine rehabilitation of offenders, subject individuals to severe criminal penalties for failing to follow proper registration requirements, and would promote the harassment of ex-offenders seeking to reintegrate into the community. Although national organizations such as the ASPCA and the American Kennel Club also oppose ineffective animal abuse registries, this bill passed on the House floor and recently out of committee in the Senate. Thankfully the Senate ultimately killed the bill, voting it down 22-8.
First Amendment Rights Bills
FY 2020 Budget (H 5151 Article 5, Section 9)Died
Article 5, Section 9 of the first version of the proposed FY 2020 budget included, amongst other potential taxes on "services," a proposed 7% sales tax on "lobbying services." We argued in both Senate Finance and House Finance Committees that this tax amounted to a direct levy on the exercise of political speech, a quintessential First Amendment activity. We further noted that by solely applying this tax to lobbying, and not any peripheral services related to it, such as public relations or political consulting, the core exercise of the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances was particularly being singled out for adverse treatment. The proposal also allowed the "dues" of organizations engaged in lobbying services to be taxed. Our testimony noted that this budget provision could have a significant fiscal impact on many non-profit organizations that engage in lobbying, including the ACLU itself. This provision was ultimately not included in the revised budget proposal.
Anti-Panhandling (H 5042)Died in Committee
Rather than confronting the issues that cause individuals to engage in panhandling, H 5330 sought to ban the practice instead. The bill would have fined a motorist for passing anything out of their window to another individual while in an “active lane of travel.” While H 5330 would have penalized the motorist rather than the panhandler, the right for individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right to solicit donations would have been violated regardless of which side is punished. The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill, which ultimately died in committee.
Net Neutrality (S 40)Passed Senate, Died in House
“Net neutrality” guarantees that access to the internet remains non-discriminatory and that internet service providers can’t choose what sites you have access to or how quickly you can access them; the same principle underlies the regulation of phone companies, ensuring that your connection to Pizza Hut isn’t faster to the pizza place down the street simply because Pizza Hut pays for faster connection times. We testified in favor of this critical legislation, introduced by Senator Louis DiPalma, noting that open and equal access is a cornerstone to the ubiquitously used and indispensable medium of the internet. This bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
Book Sales Tax (H 5158)Died in Committee
H 5158, introduced by Rep. Arthur Corvese, would have clarified the current tax exemption that exists for the sales of books by their authors to apply to works of non-fiction as well as fiction. Currently, the Division of Taxation and the Council for the Arts, the agencies responsible for implementing this law, distinguish between the two, interpreting the exemption for “an original and creative work” to only apply to works of fiction. In addition to raising serious First Amendment issues through this distinction, the agencies provide no guidance for what constitutes a work of fiction or a work of non-fiction; how, for example, would a non-fiction, graphic autobiography such as Persepolis be viewed? We testified in support of this important bill, but it died in committee.
Disclosure of Campaign Contributions (H 6255, S 1004)Passed House, Died in Senate
A campaign finance bill introduced only in the last week of the session raised important First Amendment concerns, prompting the ACLU’s opposition. Presently, all campaign contributions over $100 to political action committees or candidates must be publicly disclosed. This legislation would have reduced the threshold to $25. Years ago, the ACLU successfully challenged a $0 disclosure requirement on behalf of an anonymous Jane Doe who wanted to make a small donation to a pro-choice PAC but was afraid that she would face retribution from her Catholic church. This led to the legislature’s adoption of a $100 contribution disclosure threshold which struck the correct balance between individual privacy, First Amendment rights, and campaign finance transparency. Although this bill swiftly passed out of the Senate on the second-to-last day of the session, it never received a vote in the House and died.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Bills
Benefits for LGBTQ Veterans (H 5443, S 837)Passed
For decades, excellent military personnel were forced to leave the military on “less than honorable” discharges once it was it was made known that they identified as a part of the LGBTQ community. H 5443, introduced by Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson and S 837, introduced by Senator Dawn Euer, and supported by the ACLU, ensures that veterans discharged solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity still qualify for state veterans’ benefits. This legislation passed both chambers and was signed by the governor at the end of June.
Uniform Parentage (H 5706, H 5707, S 497, S 789)Passed Senate, Died in House
We supported both H 5706 and H 5707, introduced by Representative Carol McEntee, and their Senate companion bills S 497 (introduced by Senator Gayle Goldin) and S 789 (introduced by Senator Erin Lynch Prata), which would have updated Rhode Island parentage and adoption laws to reflect the diversity of families that live in the state. The bills would have cleared up ambiguities by guaranteeing the right for LGBTQ families to establish parentage in a manner consistent with all other families and would have provided clear routes for parentage of children born through assisted reproduction. Although the Senate legislation passed on the floor, the House legislation died in committee. Instead, a House resolution was introduced to create a commission to study effective ways to legislate uniform parentage.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
Driver’s Licenses for All (H 5511, S 153)Died in Committee
With the federal government creating an increasingly hostile environment for undocumented immigrants, it is imperative that Rhode Island take steps towards protecting the rights of all of its residents. H 5511 and S 153 would have allowed for one such critical measure, by extending the right to obtain a driver’s licenses to those who are undocumented. Although supported by the ACLU and the Immigrant Coalition, as well as the Governor and the DMV, this bill wasn't taken up in either chamber and died.
Sensitive Locations (H 5518)Died in Committee
We testified in support of H 5518, which would have protected certain “sensitive locations” in the community, such as schools and hospitals, from enforcement actions and arrests by federal immigration agents. The bill was based on Department of Homeland Security policies, which are now honored in the breach. The ACLU believes that this bill is a necessary step towards providing safety and security to our undocumented population. This bill died in committee.
Immigration Status (S 231)Died in Committee
We supported S 231, introduced by Senator Harold Metts, which would have prevented landlords from inquiring about the immigration status of their tenants or potential tenants. In our testimony, we noted that this legislation is critical to ensure that undocumented individuals can maintain healthy housing without fear, and to guarantee that a landlord couldn’t use sensitive information for a retaliatory or threatening purpose. This bill died in committee.
In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students (H 5919)Died in Committee
H 5919, introduced by Representative Grace Diaz, would have ensured the accessibility of higher education to students who have spent a considerable amount of their adolescence in Rhode Island but may not have citizenship status. Not only is affordability of higher education a crucial component of educational equity, but particularly for undocumented students, the benefit of having affordable and accessible higher education close to home cannot be overstated. The ACLU supported the bill, but it died in committee.
Medical Privacy Bills
Opioid Overdose Notification (H 5383, S 139 Sub A)Passed
The ACLU has been vigilant in opposing “solutions” to the opioid epidemic that compromise patient rights, including their right to confidentiality. It is for that reason we opposed both S 139 and H 5383, which allows hospital emergency physicians in unspecified circumstances to notify the emergency contacts of a patient, without his or her consent, who has experienced a drug overdose. Among other things, the ACLU noted that some patients may go to dangerous lengths, such as avoiding medical help altogether, in order to avoid having medical personnel disclose their condition against their wishes. This bill has passed both the House and Senate and has been signed by the Governor.
Immunization Registry (H 5541, S 676)Passed
H 5541 and S 676 authorize the Department of Health to create an adult immunization registry upon which the burden to opt out would rest on each individual. In objecting to the bill, we noted that databases containing private medical information should instead require patients to opt in. We also expressed concern over the potential expansiveness of the registry and the data it would be authorized to collect and maintain. This legislation has passed both the House and the Senate.
Compassionate Care Act (H 5555, S 320)Died in Committee
At the core of our constitutional freedoms is the right to self-determination, both throughout one’s life and at the very end of it. Legislation introduced by Representative Edith Ajello and Senator Gayle Goldin and supported by the ACLU would have allowed for certain terminally ill patients to make knowing and competent decisions about death and peacefully determine the end of their lives with dignity, autonomy, and privacy. This bill died in committee in both chambers.
Health Insurance Privacy (H 5556, S 580)Passed Senate, Died in House
In an effort to protect the medical privacy of individual members on an insurance plan, H 5556 and S 580, introduced by Representative Susan Donovan and Senator Gayle Goldin, would have required that explanation of benefit documents be sent to the member that they concern, rather than the holder of the plan. We supported this bill, noting that guaranteed patient privacy would empower members of the plan to seek the medical attention they need without worrying about their information being sent to someone else. A subsequent version of the Senate bill was amended to instead be a resolution requring the Department of Health to develop regulations with ways that providers can more clearly explain to a patient their explanation of benefits and how to opt-out of them, or how they can create EOBs that are nondisclosing. This resolution passed the Senate and is in effect, but the House legislation died in committee.
Marijuana Real Estate Disclosure (S 334)Passed
Although vetoed last year by the governor, S 334, which requires disclosure as to whether a property had been used to grow marijuana before the property is sold, was re-introduced this session and initially raised concerns. We opposed the bill, commenting that it could breach medical marijuana patient confidentiality and that it did not differentiate between growers and large cultivators, meaning that a patient with two personal plants could be subject to exposure for their method of obtaining medication. A subsequent version of the bill which was passed out of committee removed all reference to marijuana, alleviating our concerns. This bill passed both the House and the Senate and was signed by the Governor.
Open Government Bills
House Rules (H 5037 Sub A)Passed
In a remarkably quick beginning to the legislative session, a resolution to adopt rules for the House of Representatives for the years 2019-2020 (H 5037 Sub A) made its way out of committee and to a floor vote within the first two weeks of the session. On the bright side, and in a small win for governmental transparency, the new rules established that the public would, generally, have 24-hour advance notice before a committee hears a substitute amended bill. However, the rules also contained an extremely weak system of investigation for sexual harassment complaints arising from within the Statehouse. Some other minor changes to the rules were made in response to ACLU suggestions.
Senate Rules (S 250 Sub A)Passed
Echoing a positive change made to the House Rules, S 250 Sub A includes the requirement for a minimum 24-hour advance posting of substitute bills up for consideration. Some other positive changes were made to the Rules based on the ACLU’s testimony. However, the adopted version also contains a new ban on signs, placards, or posters at committee hearings, rejecting our argument that the public should have the right to express their views through the display of signs.
Open Meetings Act (H 5702)Died in Committee
In a long overdue overhaul of the Open Meetings Act, legislation introduced by Representative Robert Craven (H 5702) would have strengthened language in the existing law and addressed technological advancements which have occurred since the OMA was last comprehensivly amended two decades ago. Read our testimony on this bill here. This bill ultimately died in committee.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Juvenile Sentencing (H 5333, S 341)Died in Committee
As the Supreme Court has noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” This legislation (H 5333 and S 341), sponsored by Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and Sen.Harold Metts, addressed the problem of lengthy prison sentences for juveniles who are charged as adults. We testified in favor of the bill, which would have allowed juveniles sentenced in this manner to automatically come before the parole board after fifteen years, regardless of the length of their sentence. Unfortunately this bill died in committee in both chambers.
Civil Death (H 5491, S 235)Died in Committee
Rhode Island remains one of only three states to still have a statute on the books which declares any person serving a life sentence in prison “civilly dead.” This provision is so archaic that the Harvard Law Review called it “outworn as a mode of punishment” all the way back in 1937. Unfortunately, Rhode Island not only retains but utilizes the statute; the Department of Corrections as recently as 2018 sought to bar an inmate from bringing a civil rights suit over his living conditions at the ACI because he was civilly dead and thus had no standing to sue. This legislation, strongly supported by the ACLU and introduced by Rep. Evan Shanley (H 5491) and Sen. Gayle Goldin (S 235), would have repealed this outmoded statute. This bill died in committee in both chambers.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Background Checks for Occupational Licensing
Often, seemingly innocuous licensing bills have provisions including expansive and vague language which could render individuals with a criminal background, no matter what crimes they have been convicted of or how long ago their conviction was, unable to procure certain occupational licenses. H 5228, S 267, H 5367, S 138, H 5572, S 443, H 6033, and S 576 were some of these bills.
• H 5228 and S 267 would have required evidence that the candidate is of “good moral character” when applying for a school psychologist license with no standards for what this entails, potentially allowing for prior convictions to disqualify an applicant. This bill passed the Senate but dies in the House.
• H 5367 and S 138 would have resurrected a previously repealed statute governing the licensing of medical lab professionals and would have allowed for a denial or suspension of a license if the applicant has ever been convicted of any crime that the licensing body deems “could jeopardize patients’ health,” even though these licensees have no contact with patients and there are no standards in place for making such a determination. S 138 Sub A passed on the Senate floor, but died in the House.
• H 5572 and S 443 maintained language which included under unprofessional conduct for physicians assistants a “conviction of a crime of moral turpitude,” a vague, undefined, and highly subjective phrase which the ACLU has worked to remove from statute for years. These bills passed both the House and the Senate.
• S 576 and H 6033 included offenses such as felony banking law violations and felony drug possession as grounds for denial of a license for massage therapy, despite the irrelevance of the crimes to the practice of massage and regardless of the amount of time that has passed since the conviction. This bill has passed both the House and the Senate.
These pieces of legislation could perpetuate systems of discrimination against individuals with past criminal records; we urged the Committee to impose specific and strict limitations on the use of criminal records which could inappropriately prevent individuals from entering fields for which they may be eminently qualified.
Sex Offenders (H 5488, H 5755)Died in Committee
H 5488 would have allowed innkeepers to kick out a Level III sex offender who had lived in the establishment for more than 30 days, and H 5755 would have allowed a court to raise or lower a sex offender’s community notification level in an appeal. In opposing these bills, we noted that harsh legislative restrictions on the rights of sex offenders are counterproductive and can promote recidivism by making it extremely difficult for them to reintegrate into the community. These bills both died in committee.
Fair Chance Licensing (H 5863, S 610)Passed Senate, Died in House
The ACLU, along with a number of other advocacy groups, has long been concerned about the impact of criminal-record related professional licensing restrictions. Dozens of licensed occupations in our state have some form of conviction-related barrier codified by legislation, and every year legislation gets introduced to include more barriers to licensing based on a person’s past criminal record – no matter how old or irrelevant that record may be. Reference to some of these bills is included earlier within this section.
H 5863, introduced by Representative Scott Slater, and S 610, introduced by Senator Harold Metts, would have ensured that an individual’s prior criminal record is not the sole measure by which an applicant is disqualified for a license, and would have created a comprehensive process for determining the relevancy of a conviction to the license being sought. We testified in support of the bill, noting that it would give a fair chance to all Rhode Islanders who meet applicable and appropriate qualifications to obtain an occupational license. Although the Senate passed this bill, the House version was never acted upon and died.
Sexual Privacy Bills
Commission to Study Decriminalizing Sex Work (H 5354)Died in Committee
H 5354, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams, would have created a commission to study the impact of decriminalizing prostitution laws in Rhode Island. The ACLU and other advocacy groups noted the disproportionate impact that arrests for prostitution have on women and the inappropriate use of police resources for a victimless crime. We testified in support of the resolution, but it ultimately died in committee.
Students Rights Bills
Military Recruiter School Access (H 5250)Died in Committee
H 5250 would have granted access to student names, addresses, and phone numbers to military recruiters unless the student or parent of the student opted out of having this information made available. An ACLU of RI study from a number of years ago found that most school districts do not provide clear and consistent methods for informing students of their right to opt out, and so we encouraged the adoption of amendments that would better protect students’ rights in these circumstances. This bill died in committee.
Over-the-Counter Medication In Schools (H 5323, S 264)Died in Committee
Introduced by Rep. Susan Donovan, H 5323 would have allowed high school students to bring over-the-counter medications for self-administration on school property. Current regulations require school authorization; we argued that students shouldn’t need permission from a school nurse to bring Tums or Midol to school. We testified in favor of a similar Senate bill, S 264, introduced by Senator Ana Quezada, which would have allowed use of medication to treat menstrual cramps and vaginal yeast infections by students without parental authorization. Both of these important bills died in committee.
Threat Assessment Teams (H 5538, S 818)Passed
A heightened fear of violence on school campuses has led to legislative efforts which are intended to mitigate potential threats, but that sometimes impinge on civil liberties; H 5538 and S 818 are two of those bills. This legislation creates threat assessment teams for each school in Rhode Island and allows individual school boards to adopt relevant policies for their implementation.
We testified that while we fully support the inclusion of mental and behavioral health specialists on campus who can assist students in need of psychological support, there is a current demonstrated lack of these personnel on school campuses. Increasingly, the scarcity of these specialized staff members has been supplemented by school resource officers. We’re concerned that assembled threat assessment teams could become heavy on law enforcement and light on staff who professionally provide mental health support. We also noted that enforcement protocols like this would disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities, whose behaviors, actions, and words are often perceived as more threatening than those of other students.
This legislation passed both the House and Senate and was signed by the Governor.
School Computer Privacy (S 549)Died in Committee
In recent years, distributing computers to students in our public schools for home use has become commonplace. Unfortunately, as a study we conducted from two years ago showed, students have virtually no privacy protections on these computers, with some policies even allowing remote spying on students. S 549, introduced by Senator Adam Satchell, would have implemented comprehensive privacy requirements for such computers which would only allow school officials to search devices if they have reasonable suspicion to believe the student has engaged in misconduct on the computer, and would have prohibited remote access except in limited circumstances. We testified in support of this bill, but it died in committee.
Right to an Education (H 5252, S 42)Died in Committee
For students in low-income communities, remedies for a lack of educational equity are particularly urgent. H 5252, introduced by Representative Mary Messier, and S 42, introduced by Senator Roger Picard, would have proposed an amendment to the Rhode Island constitution guaranteeing the right to an adequate education. The Rhode Island Supreme Court has several times rejected the notion that students have a judicially enforceable right to an education; this bill would have ensured and constitutionally established this right as fundamental. The ACLU supported this legislation, but it died in committee.
School Resource Officer Funding (H 5370)Died in Committee
Despite a noted lack of counseling staff and behavioral health services in public schools, proposals to increase school safety tend to arrive back at the same “solution”: increasing school resource officers on campus. The ACLU opposed H 5370 which would have done just this by indefinitely extending a reimbursement program for school districts that choose to hire additional SROs. We testified that a reimbursement program could incentivize the funneling of critical financial resources into law enforcement rather than sorely needed mental health programs, and that increased disciplinary and enforcement protocol and personnel on campuses would disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students. This bill died in committee.
Technological Privacy Bills
Roadway Surveillance (H 5042)Died in Committee
Although the Department of Transportation has adopted strong privacy regulations concerning the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) for the state’s new tolling system, there is no law which codifies these practices. H 5042, introduced by Representative John Edwards and supported by the ACLU, would have restricted the use of ALPRs and limited the purchasing or sharing of ALPR-obtained data between private organizations or law enforcement agencies. This bill died in committee.
Computer Verification of Hours Worked (H 5255, S 125)Died in Committee
Although introduced as a bill that would hold state contractors accountable for their paid work, this Orwellian legislation would have virtually ensured significant violations of personal privacy. H 5255 and S 125 would have required software to take screenshots of a contractor’s computer every three minutes, which would have then been made available to the state in “real time” in order to verify a contractor’s billed hours. This bill died in committee in both chambers.
Consumer Privacy Protection (S 234)Died in Committee
While we supported several provisions in S 234, which addressed the sale and maintenance of consumers’ personal information by businesses, we noted that the legislation could have been strengthened in two ways in order to more effectively protect consumers. First, we emphasized the benefits of an opt-in procedure over an opt-out procedure for consumers deciding whether or not to have their data shared, as opt-in procedures are more transparent and intentional. We also offered suggestions to strengthen the remedies for violations of the law, including the ability for a successful plaintiff to recover attorneys’ fees when bringing suit. This bill died in committee.
Voting Rights Bills
Presidential Tax Returns (H 5727, S 342)Passed Senate, Died in House
We have long opposed legislative efforts to impose added qualifications in order for candidates to appear on the ballot in Rhode Island. For that reason, we opposed H 5727 and S 342, which would have required presidential candidates to publicly disclose their federal tax returns in order to be listed on the ballot. The ACLU argued that the ability to vote for an individual’s preferred candidate is a critical part of the fundamental right to vote. This bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
Election Reform Bills (H 5736, H 5292, H 5698, S 323, S 339, S 477, S 631)Died
The ACLU testified on a variety of election-related bills, some of which we supported and some of which we did not. On the positive side were important pieces of legislation which would have allowed candidates to use campaign funds to finance childcare (H 5736, S 323), would have repealed Rhode Island’s voter ID law because of the obstacles it creates to the right to vote (S 339), and would have established a meaningful process for early voting (H 5292, S 631). We also supported a piece of legislation which would have subjected the Board of Elections to the rule-making provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act, H 5698, introduced by Representative Joseph Shekarchi. These bills all ultimately died.
Prison Gerrymandering (H 5513)Died in Committee
When it comes to drawing new voting districts, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the Census worker comes through are recorded as living on Howard Avenue at the prison, including individuals awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences who are still allowed to vote, but only from their home addresses. As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly, while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. (Approximately 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston.) The ACLU once again supported legislation, sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 5513) to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. The Prison Policy Initiative joined us in support of this legislation. Unfortunately, this legislation died in committee.
Counting of Write-In Candidates (H 5709, S 477)Passed House, Died in Senate
Regardless of who a vote is for, even if it is for an inevitably losing cause, all voters fundamentally deserve the right for their votes to be counted. For this reason, we opposed a bill (H 5709, S 477) which would have eliminated the counting of write-in votes for persons who had not filed in advance a “declaration of intent.” This bill passed the House but died in the Senate.
Combined Voting Districts (H 5864, S 474)Passed
H 5864 and S 474 allows Boards of Canvassers to combine voting districts for many elections. We testified that there should be objective standards in place regarding how decisions are made to consolidate polling locations, as well as a notification system to voters to inform them of the change and a limit on the number of voters that can be sent to a polling location. The legislation, however, contained no standards whatsoever. Along with other voting rights advocacy groups, we proposed an amendment to address these concerns in the House version of the bill which was ultimately defeated on the floor. Despite our submission of a veto request, the bill was ultimately signed.
War on Drugs Bills
Harm Reduction Centers (H 5545 and S 297)Passed Senate, Died in House
Although it may appear counterintuitive, one of the most effective ways to address substance use disorder is through the establishment of clinics in which an individual can self-administer previously obtained controlled substances. The success rate of these harm reduction clinics, which provide a safe place for individuals and access to rehabilitative and medical services, is extremely high; not a single fatal overdose has occurred worldwide at one of these centers.
We testified in favor of legislation which would have implemented a pilot program for these clinics (H 5545 and S 297, sponsored by Rep. Scott Slater and Senator Joshua Miller) but noted that a critical part of its success would be statutorily ensuring that law enforcement have no jurisdiction over the clinic and couldn’t arrest anyone for activities occurring within the clinic. S 297 passed out of the Senate, but this legislation died in the House.
Legalization of Marijuana (H 5151 Article 20)Died
One of the most publicized and contentious aspects of Governor Raimondo’s proposed FY 2020 budget was the legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana. The ACLU supports the legalization of marijuana in principle, but we also took a deep dive into the full 128-page proposed Article. We echoed concerns from the medical marijuana community who wished to see the medicinal and recreational forms of the drug sold and marketed separately, so that those who rely on it for medicinal purposes have consistent, reliable access in a supportive facility.
We additionally raised questions regarding the heavy handed distribution of fines and penalties for potentially minor infractions, the lack of any employment protections for marijuana users, and criminal record restrictions on entering the marijuana business, freezing out many people in communities of color who bore the brunt of the war on marijuana for decades. Representatives from the Department of Health, the State Police, and the Department of Business Regulation all expressed strong support for the bill, but legalized recreational marijuana ultimately was not included in the full revised budget.
Drug Reclassification (H 5760, S 472)Died in Committee
The implications of a felony charge versus a misdemeanor are substantial, and impact numerous facets of one’s life, including access to employment, housing and higher education. S 472, introduced by Senator Michael McCaffrey, and H 5760, introduced by Representative Scott Slater, would have reclassified simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. We spoke in favor of the legislation, noting that this bill would ensure that an individual’s criminal record does not automatically exclude them from the very structures they need to support their recovery. This bill died in committee in both chambers.
Cannabis Equity Act (H 6067)Died in Committee
According to an ACLU report from 2016, Rhode Islanders who are black are three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white Rhode Islanders. Especially considering the low overall rate of arrest for marijuana possession in Rhode Island, this racial disparity is troubling and striking.
H 6067 would have statutorily mandated a study to determine whether these racial disparities exist in both the process to obtain a state license to sell marijuana and in arrest and conviction rates for marijuana-related crimes. We supported this bill, because as Rhode Island moves closer to legalizing marijuana, it is critical to consider the substantial impact on those who were most affected by its criminalization. This bill died in committee.
Expungement of Marijuana Charges (H 6066)Died in Committee
We supported H 6066, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams, which would have authorized the expungement of criminal convictions related to the possession of marijuana, presumably in conjunction with the legalization of the drug.
In 2016, the ACLU released a report that showed that black residents of Rhode Island were three times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white residents. Among other things, the presence of a criminal record can make it more difficult for individuals to find employment, obtain occupational licensing, and finding housing. Especially given the significant racial disparities, it is unconscionable to burden individuals with a criminal record for a crime which is not only victimless, but which the legislature has since determined is a non-criminal offense altogether. This bill died in committee.
Workplace Rights Bills
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
During last year’s legislative session, the ACLU was highly supportive of Representative Teresa Tanzi’s special legislative commission to study sexual harassment in the workplace and the package of legislation that arose from it. We support the reintroduction of the legislation, which was never brought to the House floor for a vote.
Among other things, the bills amend the definition of “employee” to include volunteers and unpaid interns (H 5346, introduced by Representative Tanzi), expand the statute of limitations for employees who have been victims of workplace misconduct (H 5341, introduced by Representative Evan Shanley), and explicitly provide the Human Rights Commission the jurisdiction to investigate sexual harassment complaints which originate from within the State House (H 5439, introduced by Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson, and S 460, introduced by Senator Gayle Goldin). We testified in favor of the entire package of legislation. The other bills in this package are H 5340, H 5342, H 5343, H 5345, and its Senate companion bill S 598, and H 5361. We additionally supported S 330, introduced by Senator Sandra Cano, which would have expanded worker protections and would have required workplace sexual harassment trainings.
H 5340 and H 5341 passed out of the House but died in the Senate. S 330 passed the Senate but died in the House. Unfortunately, the other pieces of legislation died in committee.
Medical Marijuana Employment (H 5759, S 615)Died in Committee
While current Rhode Island law prohibits employment discrimination based upon a medical marijuana patient’s status as a cardholder, some employers have claimed that they can fire or not hire a cardholder who tests positive for marijuana on a drug test. The ACLU filed a successful lawsuit on behalf of a Rhode Island resident facing this exact issue, but some employers still make that discredited argument. Legislation introduced by Representative Scott Slater and by Senator Dawn Euer would have clarified the law once and for all and would have ensured that a positive drug test cannot become a roundabout way of firing or refusing to employ a patient who is lawfully using medical marijuana. This legislation died in committee in both chambers.