2018 Legislative Session
2018 seemed like it should be the year of #MeToo, but the War on Drugs and other long-fought battles instead reared their head. When the General Assembly adjourned at the end of a rare Saturday session, the legislature had failed to approve legislation ensuring equal pay for equal work, or any of a package of bills that had emerged from a commission tasked with making recommendations to address sex harassment in the workplace. To see how your Representatives and Senators voted, check out our 2018 Legislative Scorecard here.
To learn more advocating for civil liberties, visit our ADVOCACY TOOLKIT.
Instead, the General Assembly approved a proposal fought for years by the ACLU and media groups regarding the sending of sexually explicit images online, exacerbated the War on Drugs by passing legislation allowing for drug-addicted Rhode Islanders to serve up to a life sentence for the death of someone with whom they use drugs, and provided financial incentives to school districts to hire more police officers for schools.
However, there were also some bright spots for civil liberties: the General Assembly approved legislation proposed by the ACLU that limits the shackling of pregnant prisoners, and a bill ensuring that people’s gender identity is respected on their death certificates. But the ACLU’s greatest successes this year were in beating back dangerous proposals that appeared to be on the verge of passing during a nail-biting end to the legislative session, including: an Attorney General bill designed to dismantle a cell phone location privacy law passed with the ACLU’s assistance only two years ago, a full-press effort to pass a bill allowing for the involuntary commitment of substance abusers, and clearly unconstitutional legislation aimed at restricting panhandling. These battles demonstrated clearly the important role the ACLU plays in being eternally vigilant.
The ACLU lobbies on hundreds of bills each year, so many that we can't feature them all here - missing from this list is the work we did around civil forfeiture and drone use, for instance - but below is an update on some of the biggest civil liberties battles of 2018.
Reproductive Health Care Act (H 7340, S 2163)DIED
With the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance in light of a divided U.S. Supreme Court, pro-choice organizations including the ACLU made a major push this year to ensure that the reproductive rights Rhode Islanders have today continue regardless of what happens in the courts tomorrow. Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin introduced legislation (H 7340, S 2163) codifying the principles of Roe v. Wade into state law, and repealing a number of state laws on the books that have been declared unconstitutional over the years, including a spousal notice requirement. The ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in April and before the Senate Judiciary committee in May. Unfortunately, neither committee took action on the bill before the legislature adjourned for the year. Click here for a printable factsheet on this issue.
Abortions Across State Lines (H 7735, S 2791)DIED
The General Assembly also considers a host of anti-choice legislation each year aimed at restricting or eliminating the ability of Rhode Islanders to make their own reproductive choices. Among them was legislation (H 7735, S 2791) imposing felony penalties against any person who assists a minor in obtaining an abortion in another state without the consent of the minor's parents or the courts. The ACLU testified in opposition to this legislation before the House Judiciary committee in April and the Senate Judiciary committee in May; neither committee took action on this or a myriad of other anti-choice bills.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Insurance (H 7363, S 2399)Passed Senate; Died in House
Nationwide, have historically been charged more for the same health insurance as men - solely because of their gender - leaving women less able to purchase vital health care coverage. This practice is generally illegal under the Affordable Care Act, but gaps in the law allow the practice to continue. The uncertain status of the ACA in Congress further solidifies the need for protections at the state level. Legislation by Rep. Katherine Kazarian (H 7363) and Sen. Susan Sosnowski (S 2399) would have banned gender rating in Rhode Island regardless of any changes to federal law. The Senate passed their version of the bill in April, as they have for several years, but the House never acted on the legislation after an initial hearing in February. Read our testimony on the bill here.
Driver’s Education (H 7003, H 7084, H 7156, H 7194, S 3010)PASSED
Tragedies during routine traffic stops nationwide prompted legislation last year integrating into the current driver’s education curriculum the responsibilities of a driver during a traffic stop. Such education is timely and important, but the proposals raised concerns for the ACLU and community groups like the Human Rights Commission, RI for Community and Justice, and Jobs for Justice, who argued that drivers should also be taught their rights during a traffic stop. In response to those objections, revised legislation was introduced this year to do just that. The ACLU testified in support of those proposals, H 7156 from Rep. John Lombardi and H 7194 from Rep. Joseph McNamara. The General Assembly agreed: H 7194 was approved by the House in May, and a companion bill by Sen. Gayle Goldin (S 3010) passed the Senate in June.
Death Certificate Gender Identity (H 7765A, S 2614A)PASSED
No person should face the end of their life worrying if their memory will be negated by someone's ignorance or, worse, hostility. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello (H 7765A) and Sen. Joshua Miller (S 2614A) ensures that no person will be misgendered on their death certificate, either by accident or on purpose. As only a small percentage of self-identified transgender individuals undergo gender reassignment surgery, physical characteristics are not a definitive way to determine gender identity. This legislation clarifies how to record gender on a death certificate by providing guidelines to the person filling out the certificate when a decedent’s gender identification differs from the gender assigned to them at birth or where a decedent’s physical characteristics do not correlate with the decedent's self-identified gender. The House and Senate both approved this legislation in June.
Service Dog Fraud (H 7612 Sub A as amended, S 2432)Passed House; Died in Senate
Well-intentioned legislation (H 7612 and S 2432) relating to the fraudulent portrayal of a pet as a service animal prompted ACLU concerns. Misrepresentation of such animals can create real problems for people with genuine service animals. However, this open-ended bill contained provisions running counter to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and allowing businesses to inappropriately interrogate customers with service animals. The ACLU urged the adoption of amendments to the legislation to address this. The House agreed to those recommendations, and passed an amended version of the legislation in June, but the Senate did not act on the bill before the end of the session.
Criminal Justice Bills
Juvenile Sentencing (S 2272, H 7596)DIED
Senator Harold M. Metts and Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell sponsored legislation this year to address the issuance of lengthy prison sentences against juveniles who are charged as adults (S 2272, H 7596). As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” Yet many who commit their crimes as children are viewed as incapable of rehabilitation, and incarcerated long into adulthood. Under the proposed legislation, juveniles sentenced as adults would automatically come before the parole board after fifteen years, regardless of the length of their sentence. Such a proposal, the ACLU testified, would give these young adults the chance to prove their fitness to return to society. In 2017, a version of this bill passed the Senate but died in the House. This year, neither the House nor Senate Judiciary committee acted on the bill.
Justice Reinvestment (H 7534, S 2603A, S 2604 as amended)Passed Senate; Died in House
In 2017, the General Assembly passed a number of bills aimed at improving the criminal justice system. This year, Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (H 7534) and Sen. Michael McCaffrey (S 2603A, S 2604 as amended) introduced legislation promoting two proposals passed by the Senate last year but stripped at the last minute from the package approved by the House. These proposals would reclassify certain felonies into misdemeanors, reducing the collateral consequences for individuals convicted of those crimes. They would also require the preparation of prison impact statements, setting forth the estimated fiscal effect for any bill creating new crimes or increasing prison sentences. The Senate approved amended versions of both proposals in May; unfortunately, once again, the House failed to act.
Earlier this year, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a report, “Rhode Island’s Statehouse to Prison Pipeline,” taking an in-depth look at the General Assembly's overzealous approach to criminal law making. Between 2000 and 2017, the General Assembly created more than 170 new crimes, and increased prison sentences for dozens of existing offenses. Many of these “new” crimes make criminal offenses out of conduct that was already prohibited by existing laws, but establishing harsher penalties and more serious consequences, without any evidence that they will have any effect on criminal conduct.
2017 was no different, with multiple bills introduced in this same spirit. For example, H 7445 expanded upon a bill passed last year that carved out a new offense for assaults committed against delivery drivers, to now include taxi drivers. Assault is, of course, already illegal regardless of the profession of the victim. Our full testimony on this bill can be found here. Other bills introduced this year sought to increase penalties on existing crimes. H 7390, for example, could have increased fivefold the amount of time an offender spends in prison for damaging phone lines, from 2 to 10 years. As of now, there is nothing suggesting that such sentencing increases are anything other than arbitrary. Both proposals failed to move out of committee, but a number of others (such as H 7223A and S 2135A) did pass, continuing this disturbing trend.
Moral Turpitude (H 7764, S 2337)DIED
"Moral turpitude" is a legally ambiguous term that has caused considerable confusion in Rhode Island. Currently, this antiquated term can be found in several professional licensing statutes as a basis on which to deny or revoke a person's professional license. However, exactly what this means is up for debate. The first definition of the phrase in the current edition of Black’s Law Dictionary is “conduct that is contrary to justice, honesty or morality.” Not terribly helpful, and certainly not very limiting.
While it has been many years since the General Assembly has enacted a license using this term, its existence highlights the need for better uniformity amoung State licensing statutes. No person should have to fear being denied entry into their profession or losing a license over this hopelessly vague term. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in support of this legislation (S 2337, H 7764) to eliminate its use from professional licensing statutes. Unfortunately, the bill failed to move out of either the House Judiciary or Senate Commerce committees.
Due Process Bills
Traffic Fines (H 7594, S 2433)Passed Senate; Died in House
Under current law, fined drivers must pay the entirety of the fine or their license to drive is suspended. In Rhode Island and nationwide this requirement can trap people in poverty as they struggle not only to pay fines, but also to get to work once their licenses are suspended for failing to pay. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight (H 7594) and Sen. Frank Lombardi (S 2433) would have allowed drivers a hearing to prove their inability to pay traffic fines, and authorized payment plans or reductions in the fines before their license is suspended. In April, ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of this legislation. The Senate approved the legislation in May, but it never moved in the House.
Juvenile Interrogation (S 2430)Passed Senate; Died in House
Legislation introduced by Senator William Conley (S 2430) required that a minor have a parent or guardian present during questioning by law enforcement. As one of our recent cases shows, juveniles are generally less able to understand their legal rights while being interrogated, yet law enforcement proceeds as if they were well-informed adults possessing a full understanding of the weight of an interrogation. Rhode Island law generally protects children who are interrogated while at school, requiring a guardian to be present. Yet, if the child’s first interaction with a police officer occurs off campus, no such protection currently applies. The legislation passed the Senate in May, but the House never held a hearing.
“Red Flag” Gun Law (H 7688A as amended, S 2492A)PASSED
In the wake of the tragic shooting of students in Parkland, Florida, the General Assembly introduced so-called “Red Flag” legislation (H 7688, S 2492) aimed at removing firearms via an “extreme risk protection order” (ERPO) from individuals who pose a “significant danger of causing personal injury to self or others.” While the ACLU lauds this effort to reduce gun violence, we had serious concerns about the bill's impact on basic due process rights. As well-intentioned as this legislation was as introduced, its breadth and its lenient standards for both applying for and granting an ERPO were cause for great concern, explained in detail in this 14-page analysis of the legislation. The House and Senate passed amended versions of the bills in May, taking a number of the ACLU's concerns into account, and Governor Raimondo signed them into law in June.
Expulsion of Senator Kettle (S 2490, S 2967)PASSED
Following the filing of criminal charges against Senator Nicholas Kettle, the RI Senate rushed to hold a vote seeking his expulsion. The State Constitution gives the Senate the power to punish its members, but that power should be exercised with an abundance of caution. The ACLU urged the Senate to slow down the rush to vote in order to very carefully consider the procedures to be used to oust democratically elected members. Senator Kettle resigned before the scheduled hearing on S 2490. Read the ACLU's full letter to the Senate.
However, just before the end of the legislative session, the Senate introduced another resolution (S 2967) establishing procedures for the "discipline of a member," but addressing only expulsion. Again, the ACLU raised a number of concerns regarding the proposal and urged a slower deliberation of any new procedures, but the Senate quickly approved the rules change.
Speed Cameras (H 7760, H 7956, H 7984, H 8005, S 2688)PASSED
The ACLU supported various bills aimed at repealing or amending 2016 legislation that authorized the installation of speed cameras to issue traffic tickets. Generally, the major purpose of pulling over a vehicle is to address unsafe driving as it occurs. Sending a citation weeks after a driver has already successfully sped through the zone negates that benefit, as well as the ability of police to make a judgment call as to the driver's actions. The ACLU opposed the 2016 legislation on due process and privacy grounds, and noted the technology is more about revenue-raising than public safety. The General Assembly approved legislation by Rep. Robert Craven (H 7956 B as amended) and Sen. Ana Quezada (S 2688 A as amended) allowing the operation of cameras only during the days and times school is actively in session, and requiring signage letting drivers know of the cameras' existence. Read the ACLU's full comments here.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) (H 7233)DIED
This legislation, opposed by the ACLU, would allow Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) to attest to a patient’s mental health condition and participate in certifying patients for mandated outpatient treatment, something that only doctors can do presently. While APRNs play a significant role in the mental health community, last year ACLU Board member Heather Burbach argued that recommendations for such a weighty deprivation of liberty should stay in the hands of physicians. The bill was never voted on by the committee. Read our full testimony here.
Isolation of Elders and Dependent Adults (H 8352 as amended, S 2421A as amended)VETOED
Broadly-worded legislation (H 8352 as amended, S 2412A as amended) dealing with the isolation by caretakers of elders and dependent adults sparked concerns from the ACLU and elder advocacy groups. The ACLU testified that while the legislation may have been intended to criminalize unreasonable isolation and alienation from family members, it in fact criminalized actions such as screening a person's phone calls to weed out spam and telemarketers. The legislation was approved by the General Assembly but, in part because of the ACLU's concerns, the Governor vetoed the legislation in July.
Animal Abuse (H 8170 as amended, S 2135A)PASSED
Just a few years ago, the General Assembly granted judges the discretional authority to bar animal abusers from owning animals for a period of years. This year, the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved deeply troubling legislation requiring judges to bar from owning animals not only anyone convicted of "unnecessary cruelty," but any other animal abuse offense. This includes offenses wherein the person did not actively seek to harm an animal, such as shearing of horses in winter, sale of dyed chicks, release of caged animals from a park or zoo, or failure to properly register with the Department of Health when using animals for research. In addition prohibiting these individuals from owning or residing with animals for up to five years, the legislation also makes the second or subsequent of any of these offenses - some of which only carry penalties of a few hundred dollars - felonies punishable by up to six years in prison. The ACLU requested a veto from Governor Raimondo, but the legislation was signed into law in July.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Net Neutrality (H 7422, S 2008A)Passed Senate; Died in House
Sponsored by Sen. Louis DiPalma and Rep. Aaron Regunberg, this legislation (S 2008A, H 7422) would have prohibited state-purchased or funded Internet service providers (ISPs) from halting, slowing, or otherwise tampering with the transfer of data, thus ensuring fair and equal access to all Internet content. Such a proposal has become critical because last year the FCC repealed federal provisions requiring ISPs to abide by “these net neutrality” principles. The legislation was similar to an executive order issued by Governor Gina Raimondo in April, but approval of legislation by the General Assembly would ensure that Rhode Islanders will continue to have open Internet access regardless of who is Governor down the line. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation. The Senate approved an amended version of the legislation in June, but the bill died in the House.
Internet “Porn Tax” (S 2584)Withdawn
This much talked-about bill (S 2584) aimed to “require Internet service providers to provide digital blocking of sexual content and patently offensive material . . . and allow consumers to deactivate digital block upon payment of a twenty dollar ($20.00) fee.” In a commentary we prepared on the bill, the ACLU noted that the legislation was clearly unconstitutional. Its requirements that ISPs censor a wide variety of protected speech and that consumers pay a fee in order to access First Amendment-protected material ran afoul of numerous court decisions that protect free speech on the Internet and bar content-based taxes on speech. Reports that the ACLU of Rhode Island has issued over the years -- which you can find here, here and here -- have documented just how poorly Internet filtering devices work, all to the detriment of the public, to academic freedom, and to the promotion of access to knowledge that the Internet is designed to facilitate. Read more on our blog. This legislation was withdrawn at the sponsor's request.
“Revenge Porn” (H 7452A, S 2581A)PASSED
This misnomered legislation (H 7452A, S 2581A) from the Attorney General makes it a crime to electronically transmit nude or sexually explicit images without the person’s consent, regardless of the sender’s intent. The Media Coalition, the RI Press Association, and the ACLU opposed the bill, as they had in past years, since it could criminalize publishing, among other newsworthy items, some of the photos from Abu Ghraib. The ACLU testified about these First Amendment concerns, but the General Assembly approved the legislation in May. In 2016, Governor Raimondo vetoed similar legislation on constitutional grounds, but supported this bill after some minor revisions that failed to address the ACLU's concerns.This year, the ACLU and other groups again asked Governor Raimondo for a veto. Unfortunately, she signed the bill into law in June.
Book Tax (H 7343)DIED
House bill 7343, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese, clarified that an existing statute that exempts "a book or writing" from sales tax when sold by the author covers both fiction and nonfiction writings. However, the Division of Taxation - the body responsible for implementing the law - determined that only works of fiction qualify for this exemption. Such content discrimination is not only contrary to the existing statute, but also raises serious First Amendment problems. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in support of this clarifying legislation, but the House Finance committee failed to move on it before the end of the year.
Tax Credits for Scholarship Organizations (H 7055)DIED
House bill 7055 would have greatly expanded a tax credit for businesses that make donations to "scholarship organizations" that funnel money to private and parochial schools for tuition purposes. At a time when public schools' budgets across the state continue to face hardships, it is simply unacceptable to be expanding the aid the state provides to private schools, even if it is done indirectly through a tax credit. While supporters have argued that low- and middle-income parents need alternatives to poorly performing public schools, diverting tax dollars to private schools is not the solution. The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill, which was not acted upon by the committee.
Panhandling Ban (H 8128)DIED
Rhode Island continues to try to "fix" panhandling by imposing unconstitutional restrictions on the First Amendment rights of people who often have no other alternative. House bill 8128 would have made it illegal for a driver or passenger to pass anything from inside a vehicle to any individual outside the vehicle while in an "active lane of travel." Rather than addressing the problems that have forced people to engage in panhandling in the first place, this proposal instead aimed to punish them for their poverty.
In May, the ACLU testified in opposition to this bill before the House Judiciary committee. In June, the bill suffered a rare defeat in committee when it was opposed by ten of the fifteen committee members.
Terrorist Organizations (S 2696)DIED
Protecting the freedom of speech we hate is the benchmark of the First Amendment. In April, the ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in opposition to a resolution encouraging "law enforcement officials to recognize white nationalist and neo-nazi groups as terrorist organizations." While these groups may indeed promote odious views, the First Amendment nevertheless protects their right to speak. The ACLU noted that the history of law enforcement agencies investigating groups for not adhering to the nation's "foundational principles" or for reigniting "social animosities" includes the infiltration of the Communist party movement and anti-war and civil rights movements, and the spying in the recent past on some Muslim organizations, and urged amendment of the resolution. The resolution was never voted on by the committee.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Bills
Veterans’ Benefits (H 7204)DIED
Prior to the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," military veterans who were discharged because of their sexuality were given a "less than honorable" discharge which left them unable to qualify for many of the benefits they would have otherwise earned, including disabled housing and burial at the veterans cemetery. Legislation (H 7204) by Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson sought to rectify this unconscionable practice by permitting the recipients of "less than honorable" military discharges to qualify for state veterans' benefits when the discharge was based on the veteran's sexual orientation. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the House Veterans Affairs committee in May, but the committee failed to act on the legislation before the end of the session.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
DACA Driver’s Licenses (H 7982B, S 2678A)PASSED
Over 1,200 DACA recipients live in Rhode Island and are directly affected by the President's repeal last year of the order establishing the DACA program, providing some protections to young people brought to this country while they were minors. In the absence of Congressional action, state officials have an essential role to protect Dreamers. As of now, when Dreamers lose their DACA protections, they will also lose their right to drive. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Shelby Maldonado (H 7982B) and Sen. Michael McCaffrey (S 2678A) sought to ensure otherwise, protecting their ability to drive legally. Read the ACLU's testimony on the bill here. The House and Senate each passed amended versions of this legislation, and Governor Raimondo signed it into law in June.
Medical Privacy Bills
Adult Immunization Registry (H 7882, S 2530A)DIED
Some of the most concerning civil liberties legislation this year came in the form of legislation dealing with your health. This included bills (H 7882 and S 2530A) to require that all adult immunization records be automatically included in a DOH database unless the patient opts out. This was the latest in a series of bills and regulatory measures from the DOH weakening patient confidentiality. Just last year, for example, the agency supported legislation giving law enforcement access to the Department’s prescription drug monitoring database without a warrant. The ACLU believes that when it comes to important medical information, it should be up to the patient to opt in, rather than impose the burden on them to opt out. The Senate passed the legislation in May, but the House did not. Read the ACLU's full testimony here.
Maternal Mental Health (H 7695)DIED
While addressing the serious issue of maternal mental health disorders is a laudable goal, legislation under consideration this year (H 7695) requiring a mental health screening for mothers before release from a birthing facility would have set a troubling precedent for the privacy and treatment of new moms
The ACLU raised a number of issues in testifying against the bill, arguing that screenings should be done with consent and not on an automatic and mandatory basis. The experience of giving birth is difficult enough for the mother, with or without a history of mental health disorders, only to then be put through a screening process to prove her mental fitness before leaving the hospital with her baby. No fathers are required to undergo such a screening before bringing their child home. The legislation did not move out of committee.
Overdose Confidentiality (S 2545A)Passed Senate; Died in House
Another well-intentioned piece of legislation, dealing with the opioid overdose crisis (S 2545A), threatened to erode the trust addicted people have with their doctors by allowing doctors to break confidentiality and tell family members and friends of a person's addicted status - even over their express wishes - in the case of an overdose. The ACLU testified that such a proposal undermines doctor-patient confidentiality and could leave those with addictions, not yet ready to reveal their illness to their families, less likely to seek much-needed treatment. The Senate approved the legislation in June, but it did not receive a hearing in the House.
Open Government Bills
Board of Elections Rule-Making (H 7438, S 2088)DIED
In March, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of legislation by Rep. Joseph Shekarchi (7438) and Sen. Stephen Archambault (2088) to eliminate the exemption of the RI State Board of Elections from the rule-making provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). As it currently stands, the Board can adopt regulations affecting the voting process without having to go through a public notice or hearing process.
The importance of the APA cannot be overstated. People have a right to know the laws and regulations they are supposed to abide by, and to have input into them. The Board of Elections is an important agency that sets the rules for implementing the democratic process of voting, and should not be allowed to operate in the dark; however, no action was taken on this bill.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners (H 7182A, S 2268A)PASSED
Shackling of pregnant prisoners is recognized worldwide as a violation of human rights. A restrained pregnant woman cannot move freely or control her balance, placing both her and her fetus at risk. While state law restricts shackling pregnant prisoners during transport to a medical facility and during labor, a gap in the law allowed for shackling during transport to and from court. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello (H 7182A) and Sen. Erin Lynch Prata (S 2268A) addressed that gap by prohibiting shackling to and from a court proceeding during an inmate’s third trimester of pregnancy. The bill passed the Senate in 2017, but died in the House. This year, both houses overwhelmingly approved this critical measure. Read more about what the ACLU says about these bills.
Civil Death (H 7466, S 2269)DIED
Rhode Island remains one of only three states to still have on the books a statute declaring as "civilly dead" any person serving a life sentence. It's a provision so archaic the Harvard Law Review called it "outworn as a mode of punishment" all the way back in 1937. Yet, Rhode Island not only retains but uses the statute; in a recent case, the Department of Corrections sought to bar an inmate from bringing a civil rights suit over his living conditions at the ACI because, as he was civilly dead, he had no standing to sue. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello (H 7466) and Sen. Gayle Goldin (S 2269) sought to repeal this outmoded statute. The ACLU strongly supported the repeal of this unnecessary and dangerous practice, but neither the House nor Senate Judiciary committee acted on the legislation.
Cell Phone Location Tracking (H 7451, S 2291)Passed Senate; Died in House
In 2016, the General Assembly approved ACLU-backed legislation requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before requesting cell phone location information, except in emergencie dealing with the threat of death or serious physical injury, and requiring you to be notified if your location is tracked. Almost immediately, the Attorney General sought to undermine that law by promoting legislation (H 7451, S 2291) allowing law enforcement to keep you in the dark - perhaps indefinitely - if your location has been tracked. The Senate approved the legislation in May and the House Judiciary committee followed in June but - in a textbook example of why the ACLU remains at the State House until the very end - the bill was sent back to committee on the last day of the session and never reemerged.
Real Estate Marijuana Disclosure (H 8354, S 2442)VETOED
The state's medical marijuana law was crafted to put a high priority on patient privacy, but that consideration has been placed on the back burner a number of times in recent years in the name of public safety. This year, the General Assembly sought (H 8354, S 2442) to require the disclosure in real estate transactions if the cultivation of any marijuana had taken place on the premises. Proponents of the legislation state that cultivation of marijuana can have some lasting effects on the building in which the marijuana is grown, but that is true for a great number of behaviors that aren't required to be disclosed. This proposal, however, has the effect of undermining the privacy of medical marijuana patients while also putting them in a double-bind of having to either admit on paper to the growing of marijuana (which is being increasingly cracked down on by the federal government) or be accused of fraud for not disclosing their grows. Despite testimony from the ACLU and real estate professionals, the House and Senate approved the legislation in June.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Background ChecksMostly Died
Continuing to undermine previously passed “Ban the Box” legislation that prohibits employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record at the time of application, the General Assembly once again introduced several bills to expand the use of background checks in professions that rather than promote public safety, further push ex-offenders outside of a positive community atmosphere.
Among those provisions that died this year were: H 2281, to disqualify many otherwise well-suited individuals from working supervisory positions as contractors for any number of an enormous list of offenses entirely unrelated to the profession; H 2280 and S 7606 to require taxi and ride share drivers to undergo fingerprinting and criminal record checks; and S 2230 to authorize the denial or suspension of a medical laboratory license for persons convicted of any felony or some misdemeanors. One piece of legislation passed, however: H 7790B and S2502B now allow for the denial of licenses to food truck vendors with unspecified felonies in their past "relevant to that person's suitability" to work in a food truck.
The ACLU continues to voice our concerns about the breadth of these bills and the lack of consideration for the nature and gravity of the offense, the time that has passed since the offense, conduct and/or completion of the sentence, and the nature of the job held or sought.
Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) (H 7541A, S 2586A)PASSED
Legislation passed by the General Assembly this year (H 7541A, S 2586A) will impose additional onerous registration and community notification requirements on sex offenders. Many other states have recognized the adverse impact the SORNA provisions would have on their state and that the federal money being withheld for failing to enact it is much less than the costs to implement it. These new provisions will be a significant burden upon ex-offenders, making it even more difficult for them to find housing and rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. Nevertheless, the Senate approved the legislation in May and the House followed in June.
Students Rights Bills
Over the Counter Medication in Schools (H 7570, S 2340)Passed House; Died in Senate
Current Department of Health regulations, opposed by the ACLU, require parental permission. Legislation introduced this year by Rep. Susan Donovan (H 7570A) and Sen. Jeanine Calkin (S 2340) highlighted the absurdity of the current policy by also allowing students to bring to school over-the-counter products to treat menstrual cramps or vaginal yeast infections without a doctor’s or parent’s note. The ACLU testified in support of the legislation; you can read our testimony here. The House passed an amended version of the legislation in June, addressing over the counter medications generally, but the Senate failed to vote on the bill.
School Computer Privacy (H 7710, S 2644)DIED
In recent years, school districts statewide have begun handing out school-owned computers for at-home use by students. These devices carry virtually no privacy protections, allowing schools to spy on students at home. In April, the ACLU testified in support of legislation by Rep. Jeremiah O'Grady (H 7710) and Sen. Adam Satchell (S 2644) allowing school officials to search the devices only when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the child has engaged in misconduct, and to prohibit remote access except in limited circumstances. In 2017, the ACLU published a report, entitled “High School Non-Confidential,” which highlighted the need for this legislation. Neither committee acted on the legislation.
Arming Campus Police (H 7938)DIED
Following an active shooter scare on the campus of the University of Rhode Island in 2013, every public higher education institution in the state was given authority to decide whether or not to arm their campus police. Only the University of Rhode Island chose to do so. This legislation sought to overrule every other institution’s decision (H 7938) by requiring them to arm campus police, regardless of the wishes of school administrators or students. The ACLU testified in opposition to this legislation, noting that introducing armed officers to college campuses can chill academic freedom and brings with it the very real danger of tragic cases of misunderstandings and misidentifications. The committee did not vote on the legislation.
School Resources Officers (H7200A, Article 9)PASSED
There were a number of bills introduced this year seeking to improve school security by imposing police-type enforcement measures into the school setting, including one buried within the 2019 budget. The provision, by offering three years worth of funds to school districts to pay the officers' salaries, has made much more likely that most schools in Rhode Island will have an armed police officer in their halls in the near future. Yet, the problems that come with SROs remain unaddressed. The ACLU and other groups advocated for language clarifying the responsibilities and limitations of SROs, but no amendments were included in the approved budget, and the provision passed as it was proposed.
Voting Rights Bills
Voter Identification Repeal (H 7342, S 2448)DIED
Despite concerns that photo voter ID laws disenfranchise elderly, transient and poor voters as well as voters of color, Rhode Island continues to require photo ID upon voting. Legislation by Rep. Christopher Blazejewski (H 7342) and Sen. Gayle Goldin (S 2448) would have repealed the law; the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of the legislation. Neither committee voted on the proposal. For a factsheet on why RI's voter ID law should be repealed, click here. For information on your rights at the polls, click here.
Early Voting (H 7501, S 2419)DIED
The majority of states allow for in-person early voting, recognizing that allowing people several days - instead of just one crowded day - to cast their ballot only increases the ability of the public to exercise the franchise. Legislation by Rep. Joseph Solomon (H 7501) and Sen. Erin Lynch Prata (S 2419) would have allowed Rhode Island to join with much of the rest of the country by establishing in-person early voting for our elections. The need for such a program is not hypothetical; the long lines that awaited some voters at polling places in the last general election – and many other past elections – confirm the utility of this approach. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation, particularly applauding that this bill, in order to best promote its goal, contained provisions for early voting periods that included weekends. Unfortunately, no action was taken on the bill.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 7530, S 2267)DIED
When it comes to drawing new voting districts, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the Census worker comes through are recorded as living on Howard Avenue at the prison, including individuals awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences who are still allowed to vote, but only from their home addresses. As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly, while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. (Approximately 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston.)
The ACLU once again supported legislation, sponsored by Rep. Anastasia Williams (H 7530) and Sen. Harold Metts (S 2267), to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. The Prison Policy Initiative joined us in support of this legislation. Despite the 2020 Census coming swiftly, neither chamber voted on the bill.
Presidential Tax Returns (H 7877, S 2612A)Passed Senate; Died in House
The ACLU lobbied against legislation (H 7877, S 2612A) introduced in direct response to the most recent Presidential election and then-candidate Donald Trump's refusal to release his tax records. By requiring Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates to disclose their five most recent federal tax returns in order to qualify for the ballot, the ACLU testified, this legislation set a dangerous precedent. The ACLU of RI has long objected to legislative efforts to impose additional qualifications on candidates to qualify for the ballot, and it is especially problematic for states to do so in the context of federal campaigns. Just as the legislature should refrain from setting unnecessary barriers in the way for people to vote, it should not add unnecessary obstacles to get on the ballot. The Senate approved this legislation in June, but it died in the House.
Write-in Candidates (H 7729, S 2757)Passed House; Died in Senate
Voters should have the right to have their votes tallied, even if it is for a losing cause. Legislation (H 7729, S 2757) introduced this year would have imposed restrictions on that right, by eliminating the counting of write-in votes for persons who have not filed in advance a "declaration of intent." While many write-in the votes may seem useless, the ACLU testified, they are nonetheless a valid exercise of a person's individual right to vote. The House disagreed and passed this legislation in June, but the Senate never held a vote.
War on Drugs Bills
Drug Dealer Life Sentence (H 7715A as amended, S 2279B)PASSED
Among the most dangerous of legislation put forward by the Attorney General’s office in response to the opioid crisis was this measure (H 7715A as amended, S 2279B) to impose a life sentence on anyone who provides an unlawful controlled substance to a person, when consumption of that substance results in the person’s death.
The ACLU testified that the legislation would cause frightened individuals to refrain from calling for life-saving help if they feared they could face a lifetime in prison if the person died, and that it is addicts and low-level dealers, not drug kingpins, who would get caught up under the law. The ACLU joined with sixteen other community, public health, and drug recovery groups and more than sixty medical professionals in calling on the General Assembly to reject this legislation, but to no avail. A similar plea that asked Governor Raimondo to veto the legislation also fell on deaf ears.
Involuntary Commitment of Substance Abusers (H 7724, H 7725A as amended)Passed House; Died in Senate
A pair of bills (H 7724, H 7725A as amended) to address the opioid overdose crisis would have caused considerable damage instead by allowing for the involuntary commitment of people with substance abuse disorders considered a danger to themselves or others. In April, the ACLU testified that these proposals would undermine the state's Good Samaritan Act, leaving people afraid to call for overdose help out of concern they or their loved one might be committed. Involuntary commitment is also troublesome from a medical standpoint, as some research suggests that people who are involuntarily detoxed may be twice as likely to die of an overdose once their treatment ends as people who undergo treatment voluntarily. Despite these concerns, the House approved the legislation in June. Fortunately, the Senate did not.
Overdose Review Team (H 7697A, S 2577B)PASSED
Another bill related to the opioid crisis also caused concerns. The Department of Health legislation, (H 7697A, S 2577B) creates a multi-disciplinary team to review overdose deaths in conjunction with the state Medical Examiner, in order to identify emerging trends in drug overdoses and, hopefully, reduce deaths in the future. However, the ACLU objected to provisions in the bill providing for the presence of law enforcement officials on these teams. The ACLU expressed concerns that reviews could skew away from public health to police investigations. This is especially concerning when paired with the “drug homicide” bill that was also enacted. The ACLU proposed amendments to the bill to ensure the team's efforts remain focused on public health. Instead, the General Assembly added a two-year sunset clause to the bill.
Workplace Rights Bills
Equal Pay (H 7427A as amended, S 2475A as amended)Competing Versions Passed House and Senate
Despite laws to the contrary, women nationwide earn on average just 77% of the wages earned by men, with that percentage dropping significantly for women of color. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Susan Donovan (H 7427) and Sen. Gayle Goldin (S 2475) aimed to address the issue in Rhode Island by making it easier for individuals facing wage differentials to file a civil action against their employer. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation. But the House and Senate differed on how to address the issue. While the ACLU supported the version passed by the Senate in April, the amended House version passed in June raised significant concerns, as it had provisions that actually weakened protections in existing state law. The Senate refused to vote on the House version, and both pieces of legislation died.
State Contract Computer Hours Verification (H 7788, S 2660)DIED
Imagine that while you're reading this, your computer is taking a screenshot every three minutes and uploading it to a website. Are you sure all your open tabs are things you want other people to see? Legislation (H 7788, S 2660) under consideration this year would have required the use by certain state contractors of computer software that did just that. The software is to verify the hours worked on computers for that contract, but despite multiple hearings on this bill, it remained unclear how the goal of providing real time access to data could be reconciled with the bill's language stating the software "must not capture any data that is private or confidential on individuals." The ACLU testified with concerns regarding these inherent privacy intrusions in the bill, and no action was taken on the legislation.
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (H 8276, H 8278, H 8279)DIED
A package of legislation developed as part of Rep. Teresa Tanzi's commission to study sexual harassment in the workplace could have had important and long-lasting effects. The ACLU testified in support of the entire package of legislation in June, but a few bills are especially worth highlighting. H 8276 would have extended from one year to two years the time frame to bring forward charges of unlawful employment practices, giving victims the time necessary to prepare for an investigation. H 8278 would have prohibited employers from requiring new employees to sign non-disparagement or other agreements barring them from talking about civil rights violations or other unlawful conduct. Such a provision is critical to help bring sexual harassment to light, and to allow victims to speak freely about their experiences without fear of retribution. Finally, H 8279 would have expanded the definition of employee to clarify that volunteers and unpaid interns were protected under the law. Despite the strength of the #MeToo movement and the clear need for such protections in Rhode Island, the House failed to bring any of these bills to a vote.