2013 Legislative Session
The passage of marriage equality legislation was not only the highlight of this year’s General Assembly session, it was about the only light. A comprehensive ACLU legislative package designed to address the increasingly critical issue of privacy and technology was left on the table when the General Assembly adjourned late in the evening of July 3rd, as were important bills restricting sex discrimination in insurance and racial profiling by law enforcement. In their place, the legislature instead approved in the closing hours of the session a diverse anti-civil liberties agenda, which included bills promoting sex discrimination in school extracurricular activities, providing funding to an anti-abortion religious organization, weakening the state’s open records law, and subjecting teenagers to felony penalties for committing graffiti offenses.
The one good thing that can be said about the session is that it could have been much worse, as vigorous ACLU lobbying helped defeat many other problematic bills on a range of subjects. Below is a detailed summary of some of the more important bills – both good and bad – on which the ACLU weighed in this year.
The Session At A Glance
In the final week of the session, abortion took center stage in a way that pro-choice advocates had not witnessed in years. The result: legislative approval of one anti-choice bill, and Senate approval of another in a signal that pro-choice advocates must be prepared for more attacks on reproductive freedom in coming years.
Civil Rights Bills
The LGBT community had much to celebrate this year with approval, after seventeen years of struggle, of marriage equality legislation. Attempts at promoting gender and racial equality (see “racial profiling” below), on the other hand, did not fare well at all.
Criminal Justice Bills
With one unfortunate exception, the ACLU was successful in beating back an onslaught of problematic criminal justice bills. However, we can expect them all to return next year, as “getting tough on crime” often manages to be good campaign fodder during election season.
Due Process Bills
Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the dark side of the legislative process this year than the introduction on June 5th of a complex 58-page bill completely overhauling the state’s gambling laws in preparation for the introduction of table games at Twin River. The introduction, hearings, consideration and enactment of the legislation was completed in less than two weeks – even though the state had been aware for months of the need for revisions to the law. Fortunately, the ACLU still managed to have some impact on the final product.
First Amendment Rights Bills
In recent years, the First Amendment, particularly church-separation, has been taking its hits at the State House. Last year, the General Assembly approved bizarre, and blatantly unconstitutional (and never implemented), legislation creating a permanent commission whose purpose was to make determinations about the religious or secular nature of memorials in the state. This year, the legislature’s hostility to the separation of church and state showed itself through its action on abortion bills (see the “abortion” section above) and the state’s tax credit laws.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
As appears to be true at the federal level, immigrant-related legislation no longer appears to be quite the hot-button issue at the State House that it was only a few years ago. In fact, though the legislation was severely flawed, a Senate committee actually gave a sympathetic hearing to a bill designed to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain state driving permits.
Open Government Bills
Last year, the General Assembly passed comprehensive reforms to the state’s Access to Public Records Act, following a decade-long campaign from the ACLU and other open government groups. That progress rapidly dissipated this year with passage of a barrage of bills weakening that statute. We cite only the major ones in this list.
As poor a year as it was for open government, it was just as bad a year for protecting privacy rights. The legislature failed to take positive action on a series of bills designed to protect privacy from technological advances. At the same time, the General Assembly managed to pass two bills eroding basic privacy rights.
Racial Profiling Bills
The ACLU and the civil rights community’s lengthy struggle to pass strong anti-racial profiling legislation continued this year. Though unsuccessful, the groups plan to redouble their efforts in the next session.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
There were mixed results this year on efforts to statutorily promote the rehabilitation rights of ex-offenders, but the passage of one positive bill was cause for some celebration.
Students’ Rights Bills
The high point for students’ rights this session was the last-minute passage of a legislative resolution joining with the ACLU and many other groups in calling on the Board of Education to delay implementation of a high stakes testing graduation requirement for high school seniors. The low point was the passage of legislation (described in the “civil rights” section) allowing for sex-segregated school activities.
Voting Rights Bills
One of the most troubling episodes in a legislative session filled with anti-civil liberties activity was an underhanded effort to amend a bill seeking to repeal the state’s problematic Voter ID law and instead make the law even more stringent than it is.
War on Drugs Bills
Various bills dealing with regulation of drugs, and particularly marijuana, had hearings this year, but most were left to deal with another day.
“Choose Life” License Plates (H 5053A, S 0298A)VETOED
In the last days of the legislative session, the General Assembly authorized the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue specialty “Choose Life” license plates. The ACLU had previously argued against the creation of specialty license plates by a legislative, rather than an administrative, process, on the grounds that it could lead to viewpoint discrimination when some license plates are approved and others are denied. The “Choose Life” license plate legislation (H 5053A, S 0298A) exemplified that concern. Just as critically, the legislation was an affront to church-state separation, as a portion of the fees collected for the license plates was earmarked for a local “crisis pregnancy center” whose mission is to “engage evangelicals in responding to the abortion crisis” and to “share the love and truth of Jesus Christ in both word and deed.” The ACLU and other organizations have asked Governor Chafee to veto the legislation.
Limiting Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (H 6300, H 6301, S 1038A as amended)Passed Senate, died in House
The Senate took a big leap backward this year when it passed a bill requiring the inclusion in the state Health Insurance Exchange of plans that do not cover abortion services. Specifically, a trio of House and Senate bills (H 6300, H 6301, S 1038A as amended), introduced just a week before the legislative session came to a close, sought to limit reproductive freedom by permitting employers to select insurance plans that did not cover abortion, effectively denying their employees comprehensive reproductive health services. The ACLU opposed the legislation, arguing that paying for insurance coverage that includes abortion did not impact the religious freedom of a secular employer any more than if the employee used their paycheck in ways objectionable to the employer, and that if this were a matter of religious freedom, the Health Insurance Exchange would also need to include plans that didn’t cover blood transfusions and other medical treatments opposed by various religions. The bill passed the Senate on the last day of the session, but didn’t receive a hearing in the House after vigorous lobbying by pro-choice groups.
Civil Rights Bills
Banning Gender Rating in Health Insurance (H 5243, S 0201A)Died
In February, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Corporations committee in favor of legislation (H 5243) barring health insurance companies from using gender as a factor in setting premiums. A similar hearing followed in the Senate Health and Human Services committee (S 0201A) in March. Nationwide, women are generally charged more for the same health insurance as men, solely because of their gender; as a result, women are disproportionately less able to purchase vital health care coverage. While this practice will become illegal for certain health care plans under federal law beginning in 2014, ACLU of RI-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Donna Walsh and Senator Susan Sosnowski sought to eliminate the practice across the board in Rhode Island. The Senate passed the legislation unanimously in May, but the bill never received a vote in the House.
Marriage Equality (H 5015B, S 0038A)Passed
On May 2, Governor Chafee signed long-overdue legislation establishing full marriage equality in Rhode Island. In 1997, then-Representative Michael Pisaturo first introduced marriage equality legislation. Along the way, the General Assembly offered “separate and not equal” solutions, such as domestic partnerships in 2002 and civil unions in 2011. The ACLU documented the unmitigated failure of the latter effort – only 68 couples took advantage of civil unions in the first year. Finally, seventeen years of advocacy paid off this year with passage of legislation (H 5015B, S 0038A) granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples. The law also codifies Rhode Island’s recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions from other states, and includes protections for those religious institutions that choose not to solemnize same-sex marriages. The legislation was sponsored by Representative Art Handy in the House, and by Donna Nesselbush in the Senate, who took over for Rhoda Perry, who retired from the Senate in 2012 after sponsoring the legislation for twelve years. Read our final marriage equality testimony before the House Judiciary committee.
Sex Discrimination in Schools (S 0012A as amended)Passed
In response to last year’s controversy in Cranston over school-sponsored father-daughter dances, the General Assembly severely weakened the state’s sex discrimination laws by allowing schools to promote sex-segregated extracurricular activities. In March, the ACLU testified before the Senate Education Committee (S 0012A as amended) that single-sex activities generally promote outdated stereotypes – as in Cranston, where girls were offered a dance and boys a night out at a baseball game – and violate federal anti-discrimination laws. Unfortunately, the Senate passed this legislation in April and the House followed suit in the very last hours of the session. Read our letter to the Cranston School Department. The ACLU, joined by RI NOW and the Women's Fund of RI, has asked Governor Chafee to veto this regressive and discriminatory legislation. The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, of which the National ACLU is a member, has also asked for a veto. The governor refused to veto the legislation.
Criminal Justice Bills
Strip Searches (H 5382, S 0466)Died
An ACLU bill designed to protect privacy in the criminal justice system died this year. In 2002, a federal appeals court covering Rhode Island ruled unconstitutional the arbitrary strip searches of persons arrested for minor offenses, and Rhode Island prison and police officials abided by that decision without serious incident for ten years. In 2012, unfortunately, the US Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, overruled the First Circuit’s decision, opening the door for the Department of Corrections and local police to conduct intrusive, humiliating, and unnecessary searches on any detainee in their custody, including those in pre-trial detention for minor non-violent crimes who are not suspected of carrying contraband. In March, the ACLU of RI testified in support of legislation by Senator Gayle Goldin (S 0466) and Representative Donna Walsh (H 5382) to reinstate the policy in place under the First Circuit decision. The bill required law enforcement to have reasonable suspicion prior to performing a strip search of misdemeanant arrestees, and a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a body cavity search. Unfortunately, neither bill received a committee vote. Read our 2012 letter to the Department of Corrections.
DNA Testing of Arrestees (H 5205, S 0041)Died
On June 3, the US Supreme Court ruled in Maryland v. King, by a 5-4 vote, that collecting DNA from individuals arrested for serious crimes was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Three days later, the Senate passed legislation allowing for the collection of DNA from any person arrested for a variety of offenses, including some banking violations (H 5205, S 0041). Under current Rhode Island law, DNA can only be collected from individuals convicted of certain felonies; the ACLU testified that collecting from individuals who have merely been arrested for a crime undermined the presumption of innocence and was a dangerous step towards the creation of a comprehensive DNA database. Additionally, the ACLU argued, such an expansion of DNA testing would place a significant burden on the Department of Health, exacerbating an existing backlog and delaying justice in those cases where DNA is a critical investigatory element. The legislation died when it failed to receive a vote in the House Judiciary committee.Read our written testimony here.
Computer Crimes (H 5570, S 0550)Died
The General Assembly again weighed, but took no action on, Attorney General legislation drastically overhauling Rhode Island’s computer crimes laws, altering the definitions of old laws and creating a wide array of new offenses. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees that the legislation’s overly broad language had the effect of criminalizing actions clearly protected by the First Amendment, such as commenting online on controversial topics or running a satirical website. (H 5570, S 0550)
Gun ControlMixed Results
In response to the tragic events of Sandy Hook and Aurora, the General Assembly leadership introduced a package of gun control legislation covering a wide variety of issues. (H 5286A as amended, H 5992A, H 5993, H 5994, H 5991A, H 5573, H 5688, S 0455A, S 0862B, S 0865, S 0864A, S 0860A). The ACLU testified that, despite the good intentions of this package, the legislation carried a number of troubling provisions, including mandatory minimum sentences and a lack of meaningful due process for gun permit applicants. The most controversial pieces in the legislative package died, but one bill of concern to the ACLU passed. It creates a commission to initiate the state’s participation in a federal database of individuals with mental illness or substance problems for purposes of preventing them from purchasing firearms. In addition to claiming that the database promotes the misimpression that people with mental illness are more likely to be violent, the ACLU expressed concern it could deter some individuals from seeking treatment. Read our written testimony on all the legislation here.
Graffiti Penalties (H 6276, S 0548A)Passed
Turning back impassioned objections from Rep. Maria Cimini, Grace Diaz and others in the closing hours of the session, the General Assembly passed legislation drastically raising the criminal penalties for graffiti offenders, going so far as to turn graffiti into a felony at the third offense. The ACLU and other organizations noted that graffiti offenses are overwhelmingly committed by young adults and minors, and that imposing excessive fines and jail time upon these young people exacerbates the “school-to-prison pipeline” and saddles them with a potential lifetime of consequences. Further, the legislation (H 6276, S 548A) carries harsher punishments for minors than adults, and shoulders parents with paying up to $10,000 in restitution and possible jail time if they fail to pay. The House passed the bill on a 30-28 vote. Despite a request by the ACLU and and a number of other community groups asking Governor Chafee to veto the bill, he signed it into law.
Criminal Street Gangs (H 5785, S 0460)Passed Senate, Died in House
At the request of the Attorney General’s office, the Senate approved legislation imposing additional and mandatory penalties on individuals determined to be part of a “criminal street gang,” up to one extra year in jail for a misdemeanor and up to ten extra years in jail for any felony. The ACLU testified against the harsh penalties and the legislation’s overly-broad definition of a “criminal street gang” – any group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, that has an identifiable name or sign, color or symbol. Further, the legislation did not require a person to be a member of the gang in order to suffer enhanced penalties, just be associated with any person subjectively determined to be a member. As a result, the bill’s greatest impact, the ACLU argued, could be on young people coerced into engaging in criminal conduct on behalf of a gang. The legislation passed the Senate in June (S 0460), but failed to move out of committee in the House (H 5785).
Ignition Interlock (H 5149, H 5538, H 5774, H 5899, S 0563A as amended, S 0566)Died
The General Assembly again considered a number of bills dealing with the required installation of ignition interlock devices in the cars of individuals convicted of DUI and other offenses. The ACLU testified that such a mandate on all DUI offenders restricted the ability of judges to impose penalties tailored to each individual defendant, that the legislation was so broadly worded it applied to some traffic offenses that did not involve a finding that the driver was under the influence, and that it failed to take into account the needs of indigent defendants. In June, the Senate nonetheless passed the legislation (S 0563A as amended), but it died without a vote in House Judiciary committee.
Sex Offender Registration and Notification (H 5557)Passed House, Died in Senate
In July, the House passed legislation overhauling the state’s sex offender registration and community notification laws, replacing them with federal standards so costly that few states have chosen to implement them. The federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) includes draconian public notification requirements, lifetime sex offender registration even for juvenile offenders, as well as retroactive registration for persons whose offenses may have occurred decades earlier. ACLU volunteer attorney Katherine Godin testified that notification laws hinder rehabilitation and ignore the reality of sex offenses, which is that over 90% of them are committed against victims whom the perpetrator knows, not by strangers. A Senate study commission has been evaluating the feasibility of implementing SORNA, but had made no determination by the time the legislative session concluded. The legislation passed by the House (H 5557) died in Senate committee.
Due Process Bills
Casinos (H 6221, S 979)Passed
With table games legalized in Rhode Island, the General Assembly fast-tracked legislation overhauling the casino gaming statute and adding a number of new crimes, penalties, and regulations. In June, the ACLU testified that the bill (H 6221 as amended, S 979A as amended) carried a number of provisions seriously impacting the due process rights of patrons, including a provision that allowed casino employees to forcibly detain and question patrons suspected of violating gaming laws – essentially granting the employees police powers with immunity for their actions. That provision was stricken from the bill in acknowledgement of the ACLU’s concerns. Despite objections from the ACLU and many legislators, however, the bill was not amended to revise provisions imposing penalties of up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $100,000 for violating any broadly-worded gambling prohibitions, including one barring the possession of tape, dental floss or other items that could be used for cheating. Read our written testimony here.
Interstate Emergency Compact (H 5612B, S 0501 as amended)Passed
A bill permitting Rhode Island to enter into the International Emergency Management Assistance Compact with other states contained a dangerous provision permitting the suspension of any statutes or ordinances that might impede the military’s ability to respond to an emergency. The ACLU testified before the House Corporations and Senate Special Legislation committees that this overly broad language could promote confusion and abuse during emergencies. In response, the problematic language was removed prior to final passage of the legislation (H 5612B, S 0501 as amended).
First Amendment Rights Bills
Citizens United (H 6051)Died
In May, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in opposition to a proposed state constitutional amendment responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision. The legislation (H 6051) sought to strip corporations of any rights under the Constitution, severely limit contributions and expenditures in political campaigns, and bar the consideration of money as speech protected by the Constitution under any circumstances. The ACLU testified that this unconstitutional legislation would have serious unintended consequences for many non-profit organizations, and would make it nearly impossible for anyone but an incumbent to be elected to office. The bill did not receive a committee vote. Read our written comments here.
Tuition Tax Credits (H 5127A as amended)Passed
The state budget adopted in 2007 included $1 million in tax breaks to businesses making donations to “scholarship organizations” that funnel financial aid to students attending private and parochial schools. The ACLU and public school advocates objected at the time to this diversion of tax funds to religious institutions, particularly as public school budgets across the state were being decimated. Regrettably, with no fanfare, the House Finance Committee slipped into this year’s budget an amendment increasing the tax break to $1.5 million even as public schools continue to financially struggle.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
E-Verify (H 5106, H 5236, H 5258, S 0148)Died
The ACLU of RI testified in February before the House Labor committee in opposition to a bill making E-Verify use mandatory by Rhode Island employers, and in favor of a bill keeping the E-Verify program voluntary (H 5106, H 5236, H 5258, S 0148). The ACLU noted that E-Verify continues to be an error-prone system which disproportionately disqualifies legal workers with Hispanic and Arabic last names, is used by employers to discriminate against potential workers, and fails to prevent undocumented workers from obtaining employment. Legislation mandating the use of E-Verify passed the House in 2009, but none of these bills progressed this year. Read our testimony here.
Driver’s Licenses (S 0768)Died
In May, the ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in opposition to well-intentioned legislation designed to provide special driver’s licenses to foreign nationals (S 0768). The legislation permitted the issuance of noticeably different driver’s licenses for all immigrants – documented or undocumented – seriously increasing the risk of racial profiling and harassment of immigrant drivers. The legislation further required immigrant drivers to submit to a national criminal background check before receiving a license, with no information as to how the information obtained would be used – leaving the possibility that the checks would be forwarded to immigration officials for possible action. The legislation ultimately failed to receive a committee vote.
Open Government Bills
Public Records Relating to School Safety (H 5941A, S 0801B, S 369A, H 5895A)Passed
In response to the events in Newtown, the General Assembly took on legislation overhauling the consideration and adoption of school safety plans. Unfortunately, the legislation exempts all school safety plan documents from release under the Access to Public Records Act, and allows school committees to discuss those plans in complete secrecy. The ACLU testified that this exemption would leave parents in the dark about what schools were doing to protect their children, reversing a decade of statutory transparency that began in the wake of the Columbine shootings. Without public input, the ACLU argued, schools would be more likely to adopt flawed school safety plans, and parents would be unable to determine if schools were meeting safety standards. The House passed this legislation in April (H 5941A), with the Senate following suit in May (S 801B). Read our written testimony here.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the General Assembly went on to approve a supplemental bill further exempting from public disclosure any school district documents used to protect students from any undefined “potential and actual threats.” Thus, school emergency plans in the event of a fire or hurricane will now be kept secret. The ACLU asked the Governor to veto this legislation, along with Common Cause and other groups. Those requests for a veto went unheeded.
Energy Resources Records (H 5616, S 0725)Passed
At the request of the Governor’s office of energy resources, the General Assembly also approved legislation exempting from public scrutiny a variety of information collected by that office from fuel suppliers in the state (H 5616, S 0725). Although purportedly aimed at protecting proprietary information provided to the office during state emergencies, the ACLU testified that the bill was much more broadly worded than that, and the Access to Public Records Act already contained exemption for such records. Nonetheless, the bill passed the legislature in June.
Fire District Minutes (H 5179A as amended, S 1025)Passed
There was one small bright spot on the open records front this year. The House and Senate each approved legislation requiring independent fire districts to post draft minutes of their meetings online. Earlier this year, the ACLU analyzed twelve years worth of Attorney General opinions regarding violations of the open meetings and open records laws, and found that fire districts alone accounted for more than 14% of open meetings violations and 12% of open records violations. This legislation, sponsored by Representative Mia Ackerman (H 5179A as amended) and Senator Ryan Pearson (S 1025), marks one of the few positive steps for open government this year.
Cell Phone Warrants (H 5180, S 0291)Died
The ACLU testified in support of legislation barring law enforcement from searching the contents of a cell phone without first obtaining a warrant (H 5180, S 0291). As cell phone technology has advanced, the devices we carry on a daily basis have begun to carry substantial amounts of personal information, including e-mails, photos, and records of where we have traveled. In 2012, the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed this legislation, sponsored by Representative Edith Ajello and Senator Donna Nesselbush, but Governor Chafee unexpectedly vetoed the bill. This year, the General Assembly failed to move this legislation out of committee, even though police officials acknowledged that it is a law enforcement best practice to seek a warrant prior to searching a cell phone. Fortunately, the courts stepped in this year: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which covers Rhode Island, recently ruled that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant before police can search the content of arrestees’ cell phones, making the General Assembly’s refusal to re-approve the bill even more unjustifiable.
Employer and School Access to Social Media Accounts (H 5255A as amended, S 0493A)Died
As social media use has become ubiquitous, so too has the temptation for schools and employers to use social media information to observe the activities of students and employees. ACLU of RI-drafted legislation (H 5255A as amended, S 0493A), sponsored by Representative Brian Kennedy and Senator Dominick Ruggerio, would have protected users’ private social media profiles from undue intrusion by barring schools and employers from requesting or requiring students’, employees’ or applicants’ social media passwords, or otherwise gaining access to their private social media accounts. Several states have already approved this legislation. The bill was passed by the House in June, and by Senate Judiciary committee in July. However, for unexplained reasons, the bill was held up on the Senate floor and died without receiving a vote. You can read our testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee here.
Automated License Plate Readers (H 5150, H 5533, H 5825, S 0046)Died
In February, the ACLU testified before the House Corporations committee in opposition to two bills sanctioning the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs), which are scanners placed on police cruisers and used to scan every license plate on the street. Proposed as a way to detect and ticket uninsured motorists, ALPRs have the capacity to track the GPS location of every car on the road, and to transmit insurance and registration information to third parties. Although ALPRs are gaining interest among law enforcement nationwide, their use, the information captured, and who may access that information remains largely unregulated. In response, ACLU-drafted legislation (H 5825), sponsored by Representative Larry Valencia this year, sought to limit what information can be captured and accessed. None of the bills moved out of committee. Read our testimony in opposition to ALPRs (H 5150, H 5533, S 0046) here.
Nursing Home Monitoring (H 5251)Died
In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in opposition to legislation (H 5251) allowing for video and audio monitoring of nursing homes, including the bedrooms and bathrooms of residents. While all facilities should be safe for residents, the ACLU testified that this intrusive monitoring all but eliminated the privacy rights of patients, and left patients with the need to choose between their safety and their privacy instead of finding an appropriate balance between the two. The legislation died in committee.
Domestic Drones (H 5780, S 0411)Died
The General Assembly considered, but took no action on, a pair of bills aimed at restricting the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by law enforcement. Although the technology is not used in Rhode Island yet, increasing interest by law enforcement nationwide indicates drones are on their way. Currently, state law lacks any privacy protections before drones can be used. In April, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee on ACLU-drafted legislation, sponsored by Representative Teresa Tanzi, that sought to implement some protections, including requiring a warrant before a drone can be used for most surveillance. Read our testimony here. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the Senate Judiciary committee of a similar bill, sponsored by Senator Nick Kettle. (H 5780, S 0411)
Health Care Confidentiality (H 5561A, S 0459A)Passed
The General Assembly rolled back health care confidentiality rights with passage of legislation allowing health care providers to disclose a patient’s personal medical information to law enforcement under a variety of circumstances, including when the provider believes the patient is a suspect or victim of a crime, or may possess information about a suspect, fugitive, material witness or missing person (H 5561A, S 0459A). In April, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees that permitting this sort of disclosure without the patient’s consent inappropriately turns health care providers into de facto law enforcement operatives, taking their emphasis away from patient care to crime solving. Further, fear of this disclosure may lead some in need of medical attention to forego care if they are concerned about the disclosure of their private information to law enforcement. Notwithstanding these concerns, the General Assembly passed the legislation. The ACLU, R.I. Medical Society and many other advocacy groups unsuccessfully sought a veto of the bill from Governor Chafee.
Employee Drug Testing (H 5696A as amended, S 843A as amended)Passed
For many years, Rhode Island has strongly protected the privacy of employees by barring most random drug testing in employment. This year, the General Assembly dismantled some of that privacy by permitting the random drug testing of any person working in the “highway maintenance industry,” from highway workers to receptionists (H 5696A as amended, S 0843A as amended). The ACLU testified that random drug testing is unlikely to identify users of hard drugs, which are metabolized out of the body rapidly, but would likely identify users of marijuana, which stays in the body for weeks. This would include those holding medical marijuana cards and those who used marijuana – the small possession of which was recently decriminalized – during their off-work time and who were not under the influence while at work. Further, the legislation lacked many of the procedural requirements imposed under current drug testing laws. The ACLU unsuccessfully urged the Governor to veto this bill.
Cell Phone Location Tracking (H 5456A, H 5681, S 0284 as amended)Passed
Following the nationwide revelations that the federal government had obtained millions of cell phone information records from Verizon, the General Assembly failed to protect Rhode Islanders against rampant phone location tracking. Proactive ACLU-drafted legislation (see our written testimony on H 5681) sponsored by Representative Edith Ajello would have barred law enforcement from obtaining cell phone location information from telecommunications companies without a warrant except in certain emergency circumstances. That bill failed to receive a committee vote. On the other hand, a bill expressly permitting telecommunications companies to voluntarily release location information for any reason passed by an overwhelming margin. Couched inside the “Kelsey Smith Act,” (H 5456A, S 0284 as amended) which requires telecommunications companies to release cell phone location information to law enforcement in certain emergencies, this provision permits the warrantless disclosure of location information at any time. The ACLU attempted to have the bill amended to remove this dangerous provision while preserving the honorable intent of the bill, but the General Assembly passed the legislation without amendment.
Racial Profiling Bills
Racial Profiling (H 5285, S 0145)Died
For the seventh year in a row, the ACLU of RI was part of a diverse coalition of organizations advocating for passage of the Comprehensive Racial Profiling Prevention Act (H 5285, S 0145). Three years’ worth of traffic stop data demonstrated consistently that black and Hispanic drivers are twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped by police and searched, while white drivers are more likely to be found with contraband when searched. Sponsored by Representative Joseph Almeida and Senator Harold Metts, this year’s bill generally barred law enforcement from demanding identification from car passengers, limited searches of minors and pedestrians absent suspicion of criminal activity, required police to document the grounds for conducting searches, and reestablished traffic stop data collection procedures. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the House and Senate Judiciary committees, but the bill failed to receive a vote in either committee.
Mandatory Seat BeltsPassed
In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law making seat belt violations a primary traffic offense, meaning that any individual could be pulled over by law enforcement solely for failing to wear a seat belt. The ACLU and other community groups objected that this legislation would give law enforcement another tool to engage in racial profiling, allowing them to pull over, interrogate, and potentially search drivers who have otherwise done nothing wrong. The groups argued that such legislation should only pass in conjunction with the approval of anti-racial profiling legislation. As a compromise, the General Assembly included a provision in the legislation automatically repealing the seat belt law after two years. With that deadline approaching, the General Assembly took up legislation (H 5140A, S 0352A as amended) to make the seat belt law permanent. In April, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees that racial profiling remains a real problem and the seat belt law should be allowed to expire until racial profiling is addressed. (You can also read a handout we distributed on the issue). In fact, preliminary reports by the state Department of Transportation indicate that black and Hispanic drivers are disproportionately stopped for these offenses, as the ACLU and others had predicted. Despite this, the General Assembly made the law permanent.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Criminal Background ChecksDied
In some tension with its passage of “ban the box” legislation, the General Assembly this year continued its trend of pushing to impose criminal background checks on applicants for a number of employment and volunteer positions, including taxicab companies (H 5355), school volunteers (H 5537, S 0144), long-term care facilities (H 5539, S 0458), and any business that offers any services to children (H 5678), among others. (H 5276, S 0332, S 0347, S 0468). Fortunately, most of the bills died. One that didn't was a bill (H 5229) amending legislation requiring background checks for school mentors. The original bill passed two years ago was so onerous and broadly worded that it led to the derailment of a school mentoring program in Warwick for students’ senior projects. The law was amended this year, but only slightly. Such broad and confusing background check legislation has become the norm; legislation drafted by the ACLU and introduced by Representative Edith Ajello sought to provide some uniformity to the state’s numerous background check requirements. The ACLU testified in support of that legislation before the House Judiciary committee in April, but it failed to receive a committee vote.
Ban the Box (H 5507, S 0357)Passed
One of the few positive pieces of legislation passed by the General Assembly this year was “Ban the Box,” sponsored by Representative Scott Slater and Senator Harold Metts. Employment is a pivotal factor in preventing recidivism, but well-qualified applicants with criminal records – even those from the long-distant past and irrelevant to the job for which they are applying – are often excluded from consideration before even having an interview, solely because they honestly answer the question, “Have you been convicted of a crime?” This legislation generally prohibits employers from asking that question at the initial application process, giving applicants a chance to be interviewed and an opportunity for employers to see an applicant’s qualifications and not solely their mistakes. The ACLU of RI assisted in the initial drafting of the bill, which was watered down significantly as it made its way through both chambers. (H 5507A, S 0357A)
Students Rights Bills
High Stakes Testing (H 5277, S 0117)Joint Resolution Passed
The ACLU of RI continued its work with student and education groups to stop high-stakes testing from keeping otherwise qualified students from graduating. In 2014, Rhode Island is scheduled to begin using passage of a standardized test known as the NECAP as a zero-sum graduation requirement. Such a test would have a devastating effect on the graduation rates of special education, limited English proficient, economically disadvantaged, Latino and African-American students. Representative Eileen Naughton and Senator Harold Metts sponsored legislation, strongly supported by the ACLU but opposed by the RI Department of Education, banning the use of standardized tests for high stakes purposes. (H 5277, S 0117). Although the General Assembly did not pass the bill, on the last day of the session they approved a joint resolution requesting the Board of Education to delay implementation of the high stakes testing requirement and instead consider a weighted compilation of state assessment (H 5277A, S 1047). The General Assembly has now joined the city of Providence and dozens of advocacy groups in expressing opposition to the current RIDE policy. The Board of Education is expected to reexamine the issue this summer. Try your hand at the NECAP with some of the test’s math questions here, and read our written testimony opposing high-stakes testing here.
School “Pay to Play” (H 5138, S 0112)Died
The ACLU of RI testified in February before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in opposition to legislation (H 5138) allowing school committees to charge fees to those students participating in extracurricular activities. A hearing before the Senate Education committee followed in March (S 0112). The ACLU testified that so-called “Pay to Play” programs infringe on the value of a free and fair education, and that fee waivers are an inappropriate solution for students who are unable to pay the fees levied for extracurricular programs. The legislation failed to receive a committee vote on either side. Read our testimony.
School Discipline (H 5754, S 0509)Died
In June, the ACLU released a report documenting the rampant – and racially disparate – use of out-of-school suspensions across Rhode Island. Statewide, students are routinely suspended from school for small infractions that pose no risk or serious distraction to their peers, even though that makes them far more likely than their peers to drop out of school and to end up in the criminal justice system. Minority students are far more likely to suffer suspensions, leading to a disproportionate number of minority youth pushed along the “school-to-prison pipeline.” ACLU-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Teresa Tanzi (H 5754) and Senator Maryellen Goodwin (S 0509) sought to limit the use of suspensions by requiring them to be served in-school unless the student poses a physical risk or serious distraction to other students. Further, the legislation required school districts to examine their discipline data and come up with plans to mitigate any disproportionate suspension rates that may exist. The ACLU of RI testified in support of this legislation but it failed to receive a vote.
Armed Campus Police (H 5279, H 6005)Died
In April, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee on perennial legislation to mandate the carrying of guns by campus police officers. The ACLU testified that, despite well-known tragic events, gun violence remains rare on college campuses, while the introduction of weapons results in an increased frequency of accidental discharges that put student safety at risk. In May, as part of an effort to stave off passage of any such legislation, the Rhode Island Board of Education voted to allow colleges and universities to arm their police officers if they choose, and the bill died. Read our April testimony here and our May testimony here.
Internet Filtering (H 5652)Died
In March, the ACLU released a report documenting the problematic use of Internet filters on school computers. Across Rhode Island, school districts are blocking from students vastly more information than was intended by the federal law requiring the use of filtering, leaving students unable to complete their assignments and teachers scrambling to change their lesson plans at the very last moment. Legislation introduced by Representative Art Handy (H 5652) sought to address this issue by requiring that school districts maintain a detailed written policy regarding the use of their filters, permitting teachers to have websites unblocked in an expedient fashion, and reevaluating requests for unblocking annually to determine if any filter changes should be made. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in April, but it was not voted on.
Voting Rights Bills
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 5283, S 0147)Died
When it comes to drawing new voting lines, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the census worker comes through are counted as living at the ACI – including individuals awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences and who, under state law, remain entitled to vote, but only as residents of their home location, not the ACI. They are thus “represented” by legislators they cannot even vote for (or against). As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. In fact, under the redistricting plan adopted last year, about 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston. Legislation introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 5283) and Senator Harold Metts (S 0147) aimed to restore representation in Rhode Island to “one person, one vote” by requiring, for the purposes of redistricting, prisoners to be identified as living at their last known address. The ACLU of RI testified in support of this legislation before the Senate and House Judiciary committees; read our testimony in support of this legislation here, and testimony from the Prison Policy Initiative here. The committees took no vote on the legislation.
Following a flurry of election-related legislation passed by the General Assembly over the last two years, it was unsurprising that the elections of 2012 were riddled with problems. The ACLU of RI testified before the House Oversight committee in February about the difficulties voters faced, and offered a number of solutions. In March, the ACLU further testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of ACLU-drafted election reform legislation (H 5660) that addressed many of those concerns. This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello, with a Senate version (S 0421) sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Crowley, made a number of critical changes to the state’s election laws, including expanding the number of provisional ballots counted and the procedures for recounts. Unfortunately, the bill died in committee without a vote. Read our testimony before the Oversight committee here and our election reform testimony here.
Voter ID Repeal (H 5776, S 0359)Died
The ACLU of RI testified before the Senate and House Judiciary committees in support of legislation repealing the state’s voter ID law. Voter ID was passed in 2011 over the opposition of a number of community advocacy and open government groups who expressed concern that it would impact the right to vote for those individuals least likely to have identification or the documents necessary to obtain ID, including the elderly, minorities, students, and the disabled. The law was to be implemented in two phases: a non-photo ID requirement to take effect in 2012, and a photo-ID-only requirement to begin in 2014. With difficulties faced by voters during the 2012 elections, the ACLU supported efforts by Representative Larry Valencia and Senator Gayle Goldin to repeal the law before the more stringent photo ID requirement takes effect. (H 5776, S 0359). ). In response, House leaders discussed passing a compromise version of the legislation that would freeze the voter ID law at its current non-photo ID requirements. As the bill was passed out of committee in amended form, however, (H 5776A), it did something quite different – it actually made the law more restrictive by further limiting the types of IDs that would be acceptable at the polls in 2014. Following objections by the ACLU and a number of other advocacy groups, the amended bill was recommitted. The ACLU will be back next year to seek the law’s repeal once again.
National Popular Vote (H 5575, S 0346A)Passed
The General Assembly added Rhode Island to the list of states that have joined the National Popular Vote compact. The compact provides that state election officials in all states participating in the plan would award their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who receives the largest number of popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It would not go into effect until enacted by states collectively possessing a majority of the electoral vote. The ACLU supported the legislation as furthering core principles of democracy and the concept of “one person-one vote.” (H 5575, S 0346A)
War on Drugs Bills
Marijuana Regulation and Taxation (H 5274, S 0334)Died
A conversation about legalizing marijuana began in earnest this year when the General Assembly considered bills (H 5274, S 0334) sponsored by Representative Edith Ajello and Senator Donna Nesselbush. Their legislation would have allowed the state of Rhode Island to produce and sell marijuana for recreational consumption, and authorized the state to set specific and enforceable limits on access to marijuana and funneling money from its sale to substance abuse treatment programs. The ACLU testified in support of the legislation, emphasizing that the 40-year failed “War on Drugs” has produced a significant erosion of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The legislation failed to move out of committee this year but prompted a healthy debate.
Marijuana Discrimination by Landlords (H 5437)Died
In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in opposition to a bill (H 5437) permitting landlords to refuse to rent to individuals based solely on their cultivation of medical marijuana. Landlords have the right to take recourse against those individuals who are violating the terms of their lease or threatening the health or safety of other tenants, but the ACLU testified that retribution against tenants solely because of their medical cultivation activities raised a number of privacy and discrimination concerns. The legislation did not move out of committee. Nor did an even more problematic bill sponsored by the Attorney General. In addition to a landlord discrimination clause, the bill would have allowed municipalities to pass zoning laws that would keep persons cultivating medical marijuana from living in residential areas.
Prescription Monitoring Program (H 5756, 0647)Passed
In an attempt to combat illicit prescription drug use, Rhode Island maintains a prescription monitoring database that records the information of any individual prescribed a medication that falls under certain sections of the Uniformed Controlled Substances Act. For years, the information contained within that database and who could access that information was largely unregulated by Rhode Island law. The ACLU testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare and Senate Health and Human Services committees in support of legislation that would impose privacy protections on the database’s use. Sponsored by Representative Joseph McNamara and Senator Donna Nesselbush, the legislation was originally intended solely to expand the number of medications within this database and permit the use of e-prescribing by doctors. After the ACLU raised concerns last year, the legislation was amended to include strong privacy protections to ensure the information of responsible patients remains uncompromised (H 5756B, S 0647B). Governor Chafee signed this legislation into law in June. Read our testimony here.
Salvia and Gypsum Weed (H 5063A)Passed House, Died in Senate
The House adopted amendments proposed by the ACLU in addressing legislation that restricted the possession of the plants salvia divinorum and datura stramonium, or Gypsum Weed. The ACLU testified before the House Judiciary Committee in February that these are both garden plants which grow all over Rhode Island, and that the legislation as drafted made even possession of the plants in a garden a crime carrying serious penalties. Further, neither substance has been restricted by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, as each is being researched for potential medical benefits. Agreeing with the ACLU’s concerns, the House amended the legislation to bar intentional possession of the hallucinogenic active ingredient in both plants, but not the plants themselves (H 5063A). The bill failed to receive a hearing in the Senate.