2015 Legislative Session
The 2015 legislative session looked like it might be a good year for civil liberties, with a number of pro-civil liberties bills seeming primed for passage and many anti-civil liberties bills failing to move at all. In any legislative year, however, a lot can happen to derail even the most promising bills. This year, a sudden collapse in negotiations between the House and Senate meant that a number of bills that seemed ready for passage suddenly died in the last moments of the session. Because the House has to approve a Senate bill or the Senate has to approve a House bill before a measure can become law, this meant the death even of bills that both chambers agreed were worthy of passage. The ACLU weighed in on hundreds of bills this year and stayed with the legislature until the very end; below are the final outcomes of just some of the myriad bills affecting civil liberties this year.
Health Insurance Abortion Coverage (H 5900A as amended, Article 18)PASSED
Article 18 of the state’s budget brought a significant setback for the abortion rights of Rhode Islanders. Going far beyond what is required under the federal Affordable Care Act, the Article mandates a number of health plans be made available on the health exchange that do not cover abortion services, allowing employers to choose the level of reproductive care their employees may obtain. Employees of non-religious organizations may obtain a plan with abortion coverage, but they must both make their employer aware that they want different health care and pay for the abortion coverage themselves. This represents the first anti-abortion legislation passed in Rhode Island in 15 years. The budget was approved by the House and Senate in June, and has been sent to the Governor for her signature.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance (H 5754, S 0318)DIED
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, known as gender rating, became illegal for certain health care plans under recent federal law, but gaps still exist in Rhode Island law that allow the practice to continue. Legislation sponsored by Representative Katherine Kazarian (H 5754) and Senator Susan Sosnowski (S 0318) sought to close these gaps and ensure that gender rating would not occur in Rhode Island regardless of any changes to federal law. Although the Senate approved this legislation, as it has for the past several years, the House failed to act on the legislation before the end of the session.
In April, the ACLU also testified before the House Corporations committee in opposition to a conflicting bill, H 5988, that purported to address many of the issues in the other bill, but allows for the discrimination on the basis of gender to continue. That legislation was also not approved by both chambers in time, and died.
Military Status Housing Discrimination (H 5593, S 0241 A)PASSED
In March, following testimony by the ACLU and other advocates, the Senate passed legislation prohibiting housing discrimination on the basis of military status. Rhode Island’s veterans have recently begun reporting facing such discrimination, and current law leaves them with no recourse. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Walter Felag (S 0241A), with a House version by Representative Jan Malik (H 5593), prohibits such discrimination against any servicemember in the Armed Forces or veteran with an honorable or general administrative discharge. In March, the ACLU testified before the House Veterans Affairs committee in support of this legislation; similar legislation passed the House last year but died in the Senate. This year, the legislation was approved by both chambers, and became law.
DCYF Non-Discrimination (H 5586, S 0126)PASSED
Important legislation ensuring children in DCYF care are free from discrimination is headed to the Governor’s desk. Sponsored by Representative Grace Diaz (H 5586) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 0126), this legislation explicitly states that children in DCYF care shall not be discriminated against because of their race, religion, ancestry, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, and other factors.
Criminal Justice Bills
Juvenile Life Without Parole (H 5650, S 0389)DIED
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court banned states from imposing on juvenile offenders a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. However, states retain the discretion to impose the penalty on a case-by-case basis. Legislation introduced by Representative Christopher Blazejewski (H 5650) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 0389), sought to make that penalty off-limits altogether for juvenile defendants in Rhode Island. As of June 2015, fourteen states have eliminated life-without-parole sentences for youth. As the Supreme Court noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” and juveniles who commit their crimes at that age should not be treated as being forever incapable of rehabilitation. In March,, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of this important legislation. Unfortunately, neither bill moved in committee this year.
Threats Against Schools (H 5068A)Passed House, Died in Senate
In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in opposition to legislation (H 5068) making the use of a computer, phone, or similar device to make threats against a school or daycare facility a felony. The ACLU testified that such legislation is unnecessary, as making such threats is already a crime, and that this legislation would be disproportionately levied against young, immature students with no intention of following through on their statements. The ACLU further noted that the legislation was broadly worded, applying to any “statements … concerning the endangerment of students” and could criminalize such benign activity as complaining about deficiencies in the school’s safety plan. The bill was subsequently amended (H 5068A) before passage by the House, but many of the ACLU’s concerns remained unaddressed. The bill was not approved by the Senate Judiciary committee prior to the end of the legislative year, and died.
HIV Transmission (H 5245, S 0338)DIED
The ACLU provided testimony to the House Judiciary committee in February against legislation (H 5245, S 0338) criminalizing the transmission of HIV in certain circumstances. Among other concerns, the ACLU testified that criminalizing the knowing transmission of HIV could lead to fewer people being tested, in part because the legislation criminalizes the transmission of HIV through sexual intercourse even if the person did not intend for the transmission of the illness. Neither bill moved out of committee.
Parole for Individuals Convicted of Murder (H 5158A, S 0132A)PASSED
In April, despite ACLU testimony in opposition, the Senate passed legislation (S 0132 A) requiring that individuals convicted of first or second degree murder serve at least fifty percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole; the House followed in May (H 5158A). The ACLU testified that such legislation undermines the rehabilitative goals of prison, keeping individuals incarcerated solely to keep them incarcerated, without any evidence that refusing them an opportunity to come before the parole board and demonstrate their ability to reintegrate into society provides any increased public safety benefit. Further, at a cost of approximately $40,000 per person per year of incarceration, such legislation would place a tremendous financial burden on the taxpayers with no resulting benefit. The ACLU called for a veto of this legislation.
Due Process Bills
Municipal Ordinance (S 0844)Passed Senate, Died in House
Under state law, municipalities can charge no more than $500 for violations of municipal ordinances that do not rise to the level of criminal offenses. Under legislation passed by the Senate in June (S 0844) that number could have quadrupled. In May, the ACLU testified that this legislation, submitted on behalf of the City of Providence, would allow municipalities to levy $2,000 for violations of ordinances such as disorderly conduct and panhandling. Fines for these ordinances are already disproportionately levied against individuals least able to pay, raising serious questions about the ability of residents to manage such large fines. Although the Senate approved this legislation in June, the bill did not receive a vote in House committee, and died.
Notification of Court Fees (H 6026, S 0792)Passed House, Died in Senate
In April and June, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees, respectively, in opposition to legislation (H 6026, S 0792) eliminating the notice requirement before an individual’s name can be included on a list of persons owing overdue court fees. Under current law, the director of finance is required to notify a person in writing at least thirty days before including their name on this publicly-posted list. This legislation would have stricken that requirement, ensuring that persons owning court fees would not be notified of their debts until their name was posted publicly. The legislation was approved by the House in June, but never received a Senate vote.
Free Speech Bills
Obstructing Traffic (H 5192, H 5193, S 0129)DIED
In February, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in opposition to legislation (H 5192, H5193, S 0129) creating a new crime of obstructing traffic or obstructing a freeway. The ACLU testified that imposing felony penalties against individuals who block traffic would saddle them with a lifetime of penalties far exceeding the severity of their behavior, while legislation imposing misdemeanor penalties was no less troubling or unnecessary. Individuals who willfully block traffic can already be arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, and that the creation of new crimes solely targeted at individuals engaging in political speech had troubling First Amendment implications. The ACLU further testified that the legislation’s broad wording could result in it being used to target homeless individuals engaging in panhandling. No bill was voted on before the end of the legislative session.
Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment (H 5467)DIED
As part of a package of computer crimes legislation, the General Assembly considered legislation overhauling the state’s prohibition on cyberstalking and cyberharrassment. Under current law, an individual may be penalized for cyberstalking and cyberharrassment only if they have committed a series of acts online specifically intended to harass and individual or their family. In February and March, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees that under this legislation (H 5467, S 0565), one single act online that is then used by others to justify would be criminal, holding individuals accountable for the actions of others even if they meant no harm with their original post or were unaware of the harassment that subsequently took place. As such, the legislation raised serious First Amendment concerns and would likely have a chilling effect on any communication via the Internet. Similar legislation has been introduced, but never passed, for the last several years; the legislation was not voted on this year either.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants (S 0434)DIED
In May, the ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in support of legislation (S 0434) permitting the issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Current law requires a social security number before obtaining a driver’s licenses; this legislation would allow for identity verification using a number of other factors, including a utility bill. Ensuring that individuals who are capable of driving safely can do so will keep the roads safer by enabling these individuals to obtain driver’s training and have their training skills evaluated on a regular basis, while also allowing them to obtain automobile insurance. Under this legislation, sponsored by Senator Juan Pichardo, that license would specifically state that it could not be used for any reason beyond driving a motor vehicle, including voting. The legislation further included a number of protections to ensure that licenses cannot be used to harass undocumented immigrants or to seek information on those individuals who have legally obtained licenses. The legislation was withdrawn before the end of the session and similar legislation (H 6174, S 0391) was not voted on.
Landlord Immigration Questions (S 0259)DIED
Individuals seeking housing should be concerned with paying the rent and being good neighbors; they should not have to be concerned about intrusive and unnecessary questions regarding their immigration or citizenship status. Yet, many individuals in need of housing have found themselves facing just these questions. In May, the ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in support of legislation (S 0259), sponsored by Senator Harold Metts, that would prohibit landlords from asking questions about a tenant or potential tenant’s immigration or citizenship status. Such legislation would go a long way toward protecting Rhode Islanders from harassment, especially those Rhode Islanders who are perceived to be non-citizens, but the bill was not voted on before the end of the year.
Medical Privacy Bills
Compassionate Care (H 5507, S 0598)DIED
Legislation sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H 5507) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 0598) sought to make Rhode Island the fifth state to adopt “death with dignity” legislation, allowing terminal patients to seek medication to end their lives. In April, the ACLU submitted testimony to the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in support of this legislation; testimony to the Senate Judiciary committee followed in May. The ACLU noted that, while some individuals facing terminal illnesses may choose to pursue aggressive medical treatment others, in conjunction with their families and their doctors, wish to end their lives with dignity. By rejecting the validity of that second option, Rhode Island law interferes in private medical decisions, severely limiting the autonomy of patients and their families to determine the appropriate course of care. Neither bill was voted on before the end of the year.
Open Government Bills
Administrative Procedures Act (H 5451, S0658 A)Passed Senate, Died in House
In June, the Senate approved legislation by Senator Stephan Archambault (S 0658A) to bring increased transparency to the rulemaking process of the state Board of Elections. While most state agencies are required by a state law known as the Administrative Procedures Act to adopt rules and regulations through a public process, the Board of Elections is inexplicably exempt from the law. As a result, the Board can adopt regulations governing our basic election process without having to go through a public notice or hearing process, all but eliminating the ability of the public to weigh in. Virtually no other major state agency is exempt from the APA; this legislation sought to bring the Board of Elections more in line with every other agency by removing much of the exemption. In April, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of companion legislation by Representative Carlos Tobon (H 5451). Unfortunately, the Senate bill was not voted on by the House Judiciary committee before the legislative session concluded, and the bill died.
Police Practices Bills
Civil Asset Forfeiture (H 5631)DIED
Under current law, police agencies can confiscate the money and property of a person suspected of having committed certain offenses, whether or not that person is ever convicted or even charged. Those belongings then become the property of law enforcement, and can be kept or sold with the proceeds going to those agencies. The burden is on the innocent property owner to get the money or property back by proving it was not unlawfully earned. This process, known as civil asset forfeiture, not only undermines the presumption of innocence – where the state has to prove someone has engaged in criminal activity – but also gives police an incentive to care as much about profit as about public safety. In March, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation (H 5631), sponsored by House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, to limit this practice by requiring an individual to be convicted of an offense before their assets can be relinquished, and ensuring that co-owners of assets are not unfairly punished.
Cell Phone Location Tracking (H 5373, S 0659)DIED
Approximately every seven seconds, the cell phone you carry pings the nearest cell phone tower to give you the best cellular service. These pings are recorded by your telecommunications provider, and allow your location to be pinpointed within fifty meters (ten meters if your GPS is on). This information paints a complete picture of your life, and is currently available to law enforcement at their request. In 2013, the General Assembly made it even easier for telecommunications companies to share cell hone location information with any entity, for any reason. The ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in February, in support of legislation (H 5373) regulating the collection of cell phone location information by law enforcement. Sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello, this legislation would have required law enforcement to obtain a warrant before requesting location information, except in emergencies dealing with the threat of death or serious physical injury. The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in April, in support of a companion bill (S 0659), sponsored by Senator Donna Nesselbush. In 2012, similar legislation was overwhelmingly approved before being unexpectedly vetoed by Governor Chafee; this year, the bills failed to move out of committee.
Automated License Plate Readers (H 5610A as amended)DIED
In March, the ACLU testified before the House Corporations committee in opposition to legislation sanctioning the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) by the Department of Public Safety. Proposed as a way to detect and ticket uninsured motorists, ALPRs have the capacity to track the GPS location of every car they pass, 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. This legislation (H 5610A as amended) would have sanctioned the use of the cameras with no critical privacy protections, while ensuring that a specific vendor would be able to profit from the use of these cameras. The House passed the legislation in June, but it died without receiving a committee hearing in the Senate.
Racial Profiling Bills
Racial Profiling (H 5819A, S 0669A)PASSED
In May, the Senate approved legislation by Senator Harold Metts (S 0669A) prohibiting police from searching juveniles and pedestrians without probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. For the past several years, the ACLU and other groups have worked to raise awareness of, and reduce the incidence of, racial profiling in the state, noting that black and Hispanic drivers in Rhode Island are consistently more likely than white drivers to be stopped by police and searched, even though white drivers are more likely to be found with contraband when searched. Young people in particular have also been subjected to harassing police stops and searches while walking in their neighborhoods. Passage of this legislation ensures that youth of color are not searched by police without reason to believe they are engaged in criminal activity. The Senate passed the legislation last year, but a House vote never occurred; this year, the House has passed companion legislation, sponsored by Representative Joseph Almeida (H 5819A). The legislation now heads to the governor for her signature.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Sex Offender Residency (H 6025, S 0754A)PASSED
In March and April, the ACLU testified before the Senate and House Judiciary committees, respectively, in opposition to legislation extending from 300 to 1,000 feet the distance sex offenders must reside from a school. Sex offender residency restrictions are widely recognized by law enforcement officials and professionals involved in the treatment of sex offenders to be ineffective and counter-productive. Such restrictions ignore the reality of sex offenses – that approximately 90% of child sexual assaults are committed not by strangers, but by family, friends and acquaintances known to the victim. Instead, residency restrictions make it more difficult for offenders to reintegrate themselves into the community, likely increasing, rather than decreasing, their risk of reoffending. Residency restrictions mean sex offenders are more likely to end up homeless, making it more difficult for law enforcement officials to be aware of their location in the first place. In June, the Senate passed an amended version of the legislation (S 0754A) extended the zone only to those offenders determined to be a “level III;” the House soon followed, and the legislation headed to the Governor’s desk. The ACLU and other homeless advocacy groups requested a veto, but the bill became law.
Sex Offender Registration and Notification (H 5456)DIED
The ACLU provided testimony to the House Finance committee in May in opposition to legislation (H 5456) overhauling the state’s sex offender registration and community notification laws. The proposed legislation would replace the existing law with federal standards so costly that few other 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, and retroactive registration for persons whose offenses may have occurred decades earlier. The ACLU testified that notification laws hinder rehabilitation and ignore the reality of sex offenses, which is that over 90% of them are committed against victims known to the perpetrator, not by strangers. Similar legislation has been passed in the House for the last two years, but has not received a Senate vote. The bill was not voted out of committee this year.
Students Rights Bills
Internet Filtering of School Computers (H 5581A, S 0460A)Passed by Senate and House; Never Approved by Opposite Chamber
In June, the House Health, Education and Welfare committee approved legislation sponsored by Representative Arthur Handy, addressing the use of Internet filters on school computers. Statewide, Internet filters used by school districts block considerably more information than is required by federal law, often without prior warning, derailing classroom lessons and hindering the ability of students to complete homework. In June, the House and Senate approved legislation by Representative Arthur Handy (H 5581A) and Senator Adam Satchell (S 0460A) requiring schools maintain a detailed written policy regarding the use of their filters, expressly permitting teachers to have websites unblocked in an expedient fashion, and requiring districts to reevaluate requests for unblocking annually to determine if any changes to the filter must be made. Although the House version was approved by the House, the Senate version was approved by the Senate, and both bills were scheduled to move in the opposite chamber, the final votes were not taken before the legislative session ended and the bills died.
School Computer Privacy (S 0402)DIED
As technology becomes more ubiquitous, schools statewide have begun handing out school-owned computers for at-home use by students. Although these devices are used in the home, they carry virtually no privacy protections and some schools have even informed children the computers are subject to monitoring any time, even by remote access while the child is at home. In March, the ACLU testified before the Senate Education committee in support of legislation sponsored by Senator Adam Satchell (S 0402) to put in place critical privacy protections for students. The legislation would allow Rhode Island to avoid the problems faced by other states, by clarifying that the devices may only be searched when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the child has engaged in misconduct, prohibiting remote access except in limited circumstances, and allowing parents to opt their child out of such one-to-one technology programs entirely. The bill was not voted on by committee, and died.
School Discipline (H 5383, S 0299A)Passed by Senate and House; Never Approved by Opposite Chamber
Even as consensus grows nationwide that out-of-school suspensions carry a lifetime of ill effects and should only be used for the most serious offenses, Rhode Island’s students are routinely suspended from school for small infractions that pose no risk of physical harm or serious distraction to their peers. The ACLU has demonstrated for the past several years that the tremendous overuse of suspensions in Rhode Island’s schools leaves minority students disproportionately affected, particularly for the less-serious “subjective” offenses, in June, the ACLU released a report demonstrating the serious over-suspension of children with disabilities. In March and April, the ACLU testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare and Senate Education committees in support of legislation by Representative John Lombardi (H 5383) and Senator Juan Pichardo (S 0299A) requiring that suspensions be served in-school, unless the student poses a physical risk or serious distraction to other students, and requiring school districts to examine their discipline data annually and come up with plans to mitigate any disproportionate suspension rates that may exist. In June both the House and Senate passed versions of the legislation, but the bills failed to be approved by the other chamber in time and the bills died.
School Choice (H 5790, S 0607)DIED
The ACLU testified before the House Finance and Senate Education Committees in May, in opposition to legislation (H 5790, S 0607) sending state money to parochial schools through a “school choice” program. As public schools statewide face ongoing budget cuts and the elimination of vital programs, such “choice” schemes serve only to starve the public schools of even more critical funding. Instead of giving up on these public schools and allowing them to crumble, the ACLU testified, the state should be ensuring all public schools are as well-funded as possible, to grant every child the free and fair education they deserve. Neither bill was voted on by committee.
Voting Rights Bills
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 5155, S 0239)Passed by Senate, Died in House
In February, the Senate again approved legislation (S 0239) to end the practice of prison-based gerrymandering in Rhode Island. 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, including individuals awaiting or serving misdemeanor sentences during which they are still allowed to vote. As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly, while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. Under the current plan, approximately 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston. (The ACLU is currently engaged in litigation about prison-based gerrymandering at the local level, as 25% of Ward 6 in Cranston is comprised of prisoners.) The legislation, sponsored by Senator Harold Metts with a House version (H 5155) by Representative Anastasia Williams – on which the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in March – would rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. Similar legislation passed the Senate last year, but failed to move in the House; the same occurred this year.
Voter ID Repeal (S 0343)DIED
Senator Gayle Goldin introduced legislation (S 0343) to eliminate the state’s harmful photo ID requirement for voting. Voter ID disproportionately disenfranchises elderly voters, low-income voters, disabled voters, students, transient voters, and minority voters, leaving these already-underrepresented populations with an even weaker voice in government. Compromise legislation that was floated in previous years to “freeze” the voter ID requirement in a non-photo form was never adopted; this year’s legislation seeks to repeal the voter ID requirement entirely. The bill did not receive a committee hearing.
Comprehensive Election Reform (H 5372, S 0661)DIED
Rhode Island has grappled for a number of years with several election issues, including questions of when and how recounts can be conducted, how votes are counted, and even how the rules regarding elections are made. In March, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of perennial legislation by Representative Edie Ajello (H 5372) and Senator Elizabeth Crowley (S 0661) to make comprehensive changes to the election laws and resolve these long-standing issues. Among other things, the bill sought to ensure every vote is counted in an open and transparent manner, increase the number of provisional ballots counted, and require post-election audits to evaluate the accuracy of voting machines. Neither bill was voted on by committee.
Electronic Voter Registration (H 6051A, S 0821)Passed House, Died in Senate
While an increasing amount of business is conducted online, becoming a registered voter or changing your registration in Rhode Island still has to be done in person or through the mail. Legislation sponsored by Representative Aaron Regunberg (H 6051A) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 0821) sought to change that, by allowing for electronic voter registration. The legislation would have allowed voters to easily register and keep their registration up to date, and included a number of critical protections for the privacy of personal voter information. In June, the House Judiciary committee approved the legislation, including adopting a number of protective amendments proposed by the ACLU; that version ultimately passed the House and was approved by the Senate Judiciary committee but was not voted on by the Senate in time and died.
War on Drugs Bills
Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention (H 5416A, S 0576A)Passed by House and Senate; Never Approved by Opposite Chamber
Possibly the worst result of the legislative session was the expiration of the state’s life-saving Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act. When the law was first implemented in 2013, a two-year sunset provision was added; the law had to be reauthorized this year to remain on the books. To help ensure that people do not hesitate calling 911 in the case of an emergency out of fear of jail time, the law prohibited law enforcement from arresting for certain drug crimes those who call for help in the case of a drug overdose. However, it did not prevent a person’s probation or parole from being violated, leaving those individuals vulnerable to a return to jail if they call for help. In May, the Senate passed legislation (S 0576A), sponsored by Senator Michael McCaffrey, expanding the law to protect individuals on probation or parole from punishment when they seek help in the case of an overdose. Despite this passage, the House in June approved legislation by Representative Robert Craven (H 5416A) that removed all the increased protections of the legislation, and instead only extended the sunset provision of the law for another two years. The ACLU and other advocates called on the House to save lives, and approve only the Senate version of the legislation, and negotiations continued until the very last moments of the legislative session. In a stunning turn of events, the legislative session abruptly ended before either piece of legislation was approved by the opposite chamber. As a result, not only did the expanded protections not occur, but the entire Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act automatically repeals July 1.
Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana (H 5777, S 0510)DIED
In April, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation by Represenative Scott Slater (H 5777) to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana use by adults. The “War on Drugs” has resulted in an astronomical number of individuals in jail instead of treatment, and a disproportionate arrest rate for black individuals even though black and white individuals use marijuana at roughly the same rate. Current prohibition practices have resulted in overcrowded prisons, not the reduction of drug use or exposure of children to drugs. This legislation, for which the ACLU also testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in June, sponsored by Senator Josh Miller (S 0510) would have allowed for the production of marijuana and sale only to adults over the age of 21, making it more difficult for drugs to get in the hands of children while emphasizing drug treatment over incarceration and avoiding the disproportionate drug criminalizing of black and Hispanic users. Neither bill received a committee vote.
Synthetic Cannabinoids (S 0509)DIED
In 2013, the General Assembly made illegal the use of several specific synthetic cannabinoids, in part because of ACLU concerns that prohibiting all synthetic cannabinoids could lead to the overcriminalization of harmless substances including medication used by cancer patients. In March, the ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in opposition to legislation (S 0509) undermining this effort prohibiting virtually all synthetic cannabinoids and establishing a process to make more synthetic cannabinoids illegal without any legislative process. The ACLU testified that such a process already exists through the Department of Health, with more public oversight than would exist in this legislation, and that synthetic cannabinoids should be viewed through a narrow lens and not with the expectation that all cannabinoids are inherently without benefit. The bill was not voted on by the committee.
Juvenile Marijuana Use (H 6004, S 0584A)Passed Senate, Died in House
When the State of Rhode Island decriminalized marijuana just two years ago, it did so in part to keep youth out of jail for minor marijuana use. Yet, legislation under consideration this year sought to undo that progress and put juveniles found with under an ounce of marijuana back in front of a judge. In May, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees that placing juveniles with marijuana tickets back in the Family Court instead of the Training School would allow judges to place youth in the Training School if they did not – or could not – abide by any requirement the judge placed on them. Once a child enters the Family Court system it can be very difficult for them to break out, and low-risk youth who are placed in the Training School with harder youth can only learn the bad habits and behaviors of children involved in significantly more serious offenses. The Senate approved a version of this harmful legislation (S 0584A) in June but it was not voted on by the House and died.
Medical Marijuana for PTSD (H 5766A, S 0475B)Passed by House and Senate; Not Approved by Opposite Chamber in Time
Individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – particularly veterans – have found that marijuana use helps ease symptoms and allow for relief. Yet, in Rhode Island, medical marijuana is not a qualifying reason to obtain and use medical marijuana. Legislation by Representative Scott Slater (H 5766A) and Senator Stephen Archambault (S 0475B) sought to change that restriction and allow individuals the medication they need. The ACLU testified before the House Judiciary and Senate Health and Human Services committees in support of the legislation in April. While both bills were passed by their respective chambers, the neither bill was approved by the opposite chamber before the session’s end. As a result, both bills died.
Workplace Rights Bills
Pregnancy Discrimination (H 5674A as amended, S 0276A as amended)PASSED
Existing federal prohibitions against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace have proven ineffective in prevention women from facing serious workplace penalties because of their pregnancy or breastfeeding status. Conflicting decisions by federal courts on pregnancy discrimination cases has left uncertainties in the law that permit employers to deny pregnant women reasonable accommodations, such as the ability to carry a bottle of water on the job, even as they have permitted such accommodations for other disabled workers. As a result, pregnant women are often asked to weigh their health and the safety of their pregnancy against their need to work, sometimes losing their jobs altogether. Legislation sponsored by Representative Shelby Maldonado (H 5674A as amended) and Senator Hanna Gallo (S 0276) will protect Rhode Island’s pregnant workers by ending this practice; the ACLU testified before there House and Senate Labor committees in March and April, respectively, in support of these bills. The legislation passed both Houses in June and is off to the Governor for her signature.
Drug Testing of State Workers (H 5351)DIED
The ACLU testified before the House Labor committee in February in opposition to legislation (H 5351) requiring random drug testing of employees driving state-owned vehicles. The state of Rhode Island has for years recognized the problems with random drug testing, and has prohibited such testing except when the employer has reason to believe the employee is using drugs. Paradoxically, the ACLU pointed out, random drug testing is least likely to be able to recognize hard drugs like cocaine, which metabolize out of the system quickly. Instead, random drug testing would be most likely to reveal the use of legal drugs like prescription medication, and decriminalized drugs like marijuana, leaving employees vulnerable to losing their jobs for consumption of noncriminal substances while off the clock. The bill was not voted on in committee.
Equal Pay (H 6180, S 0721A as amended)Passed Senate, Died in House
The State of Rhode Island came close this year to eliminating the wage disparity between the sexes. Despite laws to the contrary, women nationwide generally earn just 77% of the wages earned by men, with that percentage dropping significantly for women of color. Legislation sponsored by Representative Joy Hearn (H 6180) and Senator Gayle Goldin (H 0721A as amended) sought to address the issue in Rhode Island by making it easier for individuals facing wage differentials to file a civil action against their employer, during which it would be up to the employer to demonstrate that the wage gap was on the basis of something other than sex. The ACLU testified before the House and Senate Labor committees in support of this legislation in May. Although the Senate passed the legislation in June, the House failed to move on the bill in time, and the legislation died.