2016 Legislative Session
The 2016 legislative session has only recently begun, but already the implications for civil liberties are clear and significant. General Assembly action early on in the year restored the state’s life-saving Good Samaritan law, but a number of bills severely impacting Rhode Islanders’ civil liberties wait in the wings. The ACLU monitors every bill considered by the General Assembly and advocates for your civil liberties on hundreds of bills each year. Below is just a small sample of the best and worst bills impacting your rights in 2016. Check back for regular updates on these bills, and sign up for our e-alerts for up-to-the-minute information on how you can help protect your rights at the State House.
Abortion Health Insurance Ban (H 7467)
Sometimes, simply having a law declared unconstitutional isn’t enough to remove it from the books entirely. Unconstitutional statutes linger in the General Laws, causing confusion to those who aren’t versed in constitutional history and – in the case of abortion laws – providing false information to people about their rights. In February, the ACLU testified before the House Corporations committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Joseph Almeida (H 7467) removing from the General Laws two provisions regarding health insurance coverage for abortion that were struck down long ago, following challenge by the ACLU. The first required abortion coverage to be offered only as an optional rider, at additional expense to women. The second barred municipalities from offering abortion coverage to their employees. The ACLU urged deletion of both outdated laws, and further encouraged the elimination of a law prohibiting abortion coverage for state employees.
Insurance Coverage for Abortion (H 7760)
The General Assembly is once again considering a spate of anti-abortion legislation. Among these is legislation (H 7760) prohibiting women who get an insurance plan tax credit from buying a plan that includes any abortion coverage beyond life, rape, and incest – there is no exception for women’s health. In March, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee that forcing women to buy an abortion insurance rider effectively blocks women struggling to make ends meet from getting the care they need, requiring women to jump through hoops not required for any other medical procedure, even those opposed by people with deeply held religious beliefs.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance (H 7513, S 2692 as amended)
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 the federal Affordable Care Act, but gaps in Rhode Island law may allow the practice to continue. Legislation sponsored by Representative Katherine Kazarian (H 7513) and Senator Susan Sosnowski (S 2692 as amended) will close these gaps and ensure gender rating does not occur in Rhode Island, regardless of any changes to federal law. The ACLU testified before the House Corporations committee in support of this legislation in February. The Senate passed this legislation in April, as they have done for the last several years; the House has never moved the legislation out of committee.
Criminal Justice Bills
Human Trafficking (H 7527, S 2413 as amended)
Language in legislation to combat human trafficking carries serious unintended consequences, including the further victimization of individuals caught up in trafficking. In February and March, the ACLU testified before the House (H 7257) and Senate (S 2413) committees, respectively, with concerns about the legislation. The bill provides immunity to trafficked minors only if they state in their defense that they were a trafficking victim – a statement many victims are not ready to make when they are arrested. Other parts of the legislation raise First Amendment concerns, and penalize behavior that was not criminal at the time it was conducted. The legislation also would turn soliciting prostitution from a misdemeanor into a felony, imposing extremely harsh penalties on individuals engaged in consensual sexual activity. The Senate approved this legislation in April.
Unauthorized Computer Access (H 7406, S 2584)
As part of a package of computer crimes legislation put forward by they Attorney General's office, whistleblowers or spouses who guess a computer password could soon serve up to five years in prison. In February and March, the ACLU testified before the House (H 7406) and Senate (S 2584) Judiciary committees, respectively, in opposition to broadly worded legislation that treats whistleblowers and overzealous spouses the same as malicious hackers, subjecting them to felony penalties. The ACLU noted that similarly broad wording in federal legislation has been used to punish exactly these individuals.
Due Process Bills
Overdue Court Fees (H 7830, S 2505)
Individuals owing overdue court fees may soon find their names on a public list shaming scofflaws --even if the fees are minor, decades old, or even inaccurate -- without prior notification. In March, the ACLU testified before the House (H 7830) and Senate (S 2505) Judiciary committees in opposition to legislation repealing a requirement that the court notify individuals with outstanding fees prior to placing their name on a public web site. Without prior notification, many people owing fees – or who court records erroneously list as owing fees – may find themselves humiliated when a family member or potential employer Googles their name and finds them labeled as a deadbeat by the State of Rhode Island. The Senate approved the legislation in March. In April, the ACLU wrote to the Rhode Island Judiciary asking them to withdraw their support of the legislation, citing media reports of individuals receiving notices when they were unaware they owed fees to begin with. Unfortunately, the House Judiciary committee approved the legislation just days later. It awaits a vote by the full House.
Free Speech Bills
Revenge Porn (H 7537, S 2540)
Another part of the Attorney General's package of computer crimes legislation is a bill that would make the simple sharing online of certain images a crime. In February and March, the ACLU testified before the House (H 7537) and Senate (S 2540) Judiciary committees, respectively, that the legislation would criminalize the retweeting or reposting online of a sexually explicit image without the direct consent of the person in the image – even if the picture was initially taken and shared consensually. The legislation contains no requirement than sharing the images actually causes harm or emotional distress to anybody. As a result, the legislation makes a criminal out of any person who shares even newsworthy images that are circulating online, solely because they did not get the consent of the original person to share this image.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
E-Verify (H 7217)
The federal E-Verify program remains dependent on a system plagued with errors and misinformation, leaving nearly 10 percent of foreign-born citizens incorrectly deemed ineligible to work. Despite laws prohibiting pre-screening, up to 47 percent of employers have used E-Verify to pre-screen, and it is disproportionately workers of color or those with foreign-sounding last names who are disqualified as a result of name mismatches. For these reasons, the ACLU in January testified before the House Labor committee in opposition to legislation (H 7217) requiring most Rhode Island employers to participate in the E-Verify program.
Medical Privacy Bills
Health Information Exchange (H 7866, S 2898)
When Rhode Island created its Health Information Exchange in 2008, it did so with explicit promises that its goal was to coordinate medical care and strictly limit how patients’ medical information in the exchange could be shared. In 2016, the General Assembly is considering greatly expanding entities that would have access to the exchange, including granting access to broadly defined health plans for purposes totally unrelated to direct medical care. In April, the ACLU testified before the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare (H 7866) that such disclosure goes far beyond what was originally intended for the Exchange - and what those who opted-in to the Exchange agreed to share - and carries serious implications for the medical privacy of all Rhode Islanders whose information remains within the Exchange. A companion bill in the Senate (S 2898) awaits a hearing.
Warrantless Prescription Access (H 7518, S 2713)
In April, the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare approved dangerous legislation (H 7518) granting law enforcement access to the prescription information of thousands of Rhode Islanders without a warrant. Presently, access to the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PMP) is severely limited, and law enforcement must have a warrant before viewing prescription information. That's because the PMP contains personally-identifiable prescription information for every schedule II, III and IV medication doled out in the state, including painkillers, anti-seizure medication, mood stabilizers, diet pills, and sleep aids. Its purpose is to facilitate patient care and help doctors recognize addictive behavior in their patients. In March, the ACLU testified before House HEW and the Senate Judiciary committee (S 2713) that this legislation allows nothing less than data-mining, undermining efforts to view the opioid crisis as a medical problem and leaving doctors and chronic pain sufferers particularly subject to suspicion and investigation solely because of out-of-context prescription records.
Open Government Bills
Administrative Procedures Act (H 7314, S 2715)
The General Assembly may soon close a loophole that allows your basic election processes to change behind closed doors. Currently, the state Board of Elections is virtually the only major state agency exempt from the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires state agencies to adopt rules and regulations through an open, public process. As a result, the Board can modify how elections take place in Rhode Island without having to inform the public or accept public input. In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Carlos Tobon (H 7314) to eliminate this exemption. Companion legislation by Senator Stephen Archambault (S 2715) awaits a hearing in the Senate; similar legislation passed the full Senate in 2015.
Access to Public Records (H, 7973, S 2308)
The state’s law governing public records could be up for revision again this year. The Access to Public Records Act dictates when public entities can keep documents from public view, and the rights of the public to view or obtain other documents; despite updates in 2013, an audit by the ACLU and other groups concerned with transparency in government found the law’s enforcement policies insufficient to ensure compliance from dozens of agencies. Legislation sponsored by Representative Robert Craven (H 7973) and Senator Stephen Archambault (S 2308) aims to make it easier for the public to obtain documents of public concern. Among other provisions, the legislation will clarify when document such as arrest reports and correspondence by elected officials can be exempt from release, require public bodies to note the reasons for withholding any document, require public bodies prominently feature their public records policies on their websites, and allow courts to impose stronger penalties on those bodies that improperly withhold documents.
Police Practices Bills
Civil Asset Forfeiture (H 7396)
If you’re stopped by the police today, you could lose your money or your home – even if you’re never arrested. Currently, police agencies can confiscate the assets 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 sold with the proceeds going to the police. 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 in support of legislation sponsored by House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (H 7396) 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.
Police Body Cameras (H 7198)
Over the last few years, use by law enforcement of body cameras has exploded. Body cameras can have some significant benefits to law enforcement and the community; they can help protect against police misconduct, can protect law enforcement against false allegations of abuse, and can help police and the public glean lessons from the positive and negative interactions between law enforcement and the community every day. At the same time, police body cameras can have significant drawbacks. Absent the right protections – including assurances as to when the cameras may be turned on and off, when and how the information collected by the cameras may be used, and who may have access to it – body cameras can ineffectual or invade the privacy of people at their worst moments. In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Joseph Almeida (H 7198) laying out the acceptable use of body cameras and placing restrictions on the use and release of the collected data. The ACLU noted the importance of having a statewide law regarding body camera use, to ensure all police departments use the cameras in the same predictable manner, and urged the General Assembly to adopt such legislation before body camera programs go into effect in Rhode Island.
Administrative Subpoenas (H 7542, S 2631)
In 2011, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law allowing law enforcement to obtain an individual’s Internet subscriber information from Internet service providers without a warrant; in 2016, the General Assembly is weighing expanding the offenses for which this is an option. This new legislation (H 7542, S 2631) would give the police unilateral authority, without court review, to obtain Internet subscriber information on new crimes including “online impersonation,” a law that already raises serious First Amendment concerns. In February and March the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees, respectively, that a warrant is a fundamental due process provision that places an important check on police investigations, and ensures that a third party evaluate the strength of law enforcement’s probable cause.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners (H 7613, S 2317)
In March, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Shelby Maldonado (H 7613) and Senator Erin Lynch Prata (S 2317) to strengthen the state’s limitation on shackling pregnant incarcerated women. The physical restraint of pregnant inmates during transport, labor, delivery and recovery is viewed as a major human rights and civil rights concern, within the United States and internationally. A restrained pregnant woman cannot move freely or control her balance, placing both her and her fetus at risk. While Rhode Island law generally prohibits the shackling of pregnant women during transport to a medical facility, labor, delivery or postpartum recovery, recent review of the law revealed some gaps that may leave pregnant prisoners vulnerable. This legislation will expand the law to prohibit shackling during transport to or from a court proceeding during a pregnant inmate’s third trimester, when their mobility and balance are significantly limited. The legislation also imposes a reporting requirement, so state officials can keep track of the number of pregnant women incarcerated during the prior year, the outcome of their pregnancy, and the numbers of pregnant women restrained. Read the facts about the bill here.
Location Tracking (H 7167, S 2403)
Approximately every seven seconds, the cell phone you carry pings the nearest 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, even if your GPS is not on. This information paints a complete picture of your life, and is currently available to law enforcement at their simple request. Legislation sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7167) and Senator Donna Nesselbush (S 2403) will limit the misuse of this information by requiring 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 House Judiciary committee in support of this legislation in February. In 2012, similar legislation overwhelmingly passed the legislature before being unexpectedly vetoed by Governor Chafee. In 2013, the General Assembly made it even easier for telecommunications companies to share cell phone location information with any entity, for any reason, making this legislation all the more necessary to protect privacy.
Automated Toll Collection (H 7409A as amended, S 2246A as amended)
Drivers on Rhode Island’s highways will soon have their movements tracked under the state’s RhodeWorks toll legislation, signed into law in February. While the legislation itself (H 7409A as amended, S 2246A as amended) mentions nothing about the technology authorized by this law, testimony by DOT Director Peter Alviti before the General Assembly revealed the DOT intends to use automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to track the movements of large trucks – and, though not for toll purposes, every other vehicle on Rhode Island’s highways. ALPRs are high-powered cameras that capture the license plate, date, time, and GPS location of every vehicle that passes by, even across several lanes of traffic and at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. As a result, ALPRs memorialize a comprehensive map of every car’s movements throughout the day. Despite this incredible intrusion on privacy, the law is silent to the storage or use of the data; law enforcement can store the data infinitely, access it without a warrant, and the DOT can even sell it to a third party if desired. A last-minute amendment to put some privacy protections in place was defeated on the floor. The ACLU is evaluating next steps to ensure privacy protections are codified before the first toll gantry is erected.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Background Checks for Employment
Following the passage three years of “Ban the Box” legislation that prohibited employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record at the time of application, the General Assembly has considered – and generally approved – broad background check requirements for a wide range of jobs and professions. The 2016 General Assembly appears to be headed in the same direction, dedicated to making it more difficult for ex-offenders to find gainful employment – often the most significant factor in whether a person will return to jail.
In January, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in opposition to legislation expanding the state’s background check process for massage therapists (H 7007), by giving municipalities the power to grant employers access to a person’s entire criminal record. Currently, the law states that employers can be made aware only of the existence of certain disqualifying offenses, ensuring that individuals are disqualified only for those offenses directly related to their job. This legislation would undermine that law by giving municipalities the power to grant access to a person’s entire criminal record. Thus, a person could be excluded from work as a massage therapist for long-distant offenses that have no bearing on their fitness as a massage therapist.
Sex Offenders Bills
Homeless Sex Offenders (S 2319)
Following passage last year of legislation to prohibit level III sex offenders from living within 1000 feet of a school, the state has seen an increase in the number of homeless and potentially homeless sex offenders. This year, the General Assembly is weighing legislation (S 2319) to further target sex offenders and the shelter staff members who help them. This legislation requires homeless sex offenders – who are already required to register – to disclose their offender status to the homeless shelter. The legislation then requires shelter workers to contact law enforcement within an hour and disclose the name and information of every offender in the shelter. Shelter workers who do not – including social workers who are prohibited from doing so under the Social Work Code of Ethics – face up to five years in prison. In March, the ACLU testified that this legislation served only to further stigmatize homeless sex offenders who are already abiding by their responsibility to register, and that forcing shelter workers to continually report on sex offenders' whereabouts is an onerous and inappropriate burden that takes them away from their primary responsibility - to provide care for the state's homeless population.
Students Rights Bills
The School-to-Prison Pipeline (H 7056, H 7057, S 2168)
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 students of color and students with disabilities disproportionately affected, particularly for the less-serious “subjective” offenses. As a result, these students are disproportionately subjected to the serious consequences that follow from even one suspension, including an increased likelihood of dropping out and, later, incarceration. Legislation sponsored by Representative Grace Diaz (H 7056), Representative John Lombardi (H 7057), and Senator Juan Pichardo (S 2168)will tackle this “school-to-prison pipeline” by 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. Similar legislation passed both the House and Senate in 2015, but died when neither chamber approved the other chamber’s bill.
School Computer Privacy (H 7675, S 2171)
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. Legislation sponsored by Representative Brian Kennedy (H 7675) and Senator Adam Satchell (S 2171) will 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.
Internet Filtering of School Computers (H 7583, S 2172)
Students may soon find it easier to complete their assignments at school, instead of having their research stymied by overzealous filtering software. 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. Legislation sponsored by Representative Art Handy (H 7583) and Senator Adam Satchell (S 2172) will lessen these barriers by requiring schools maintain a detailed written policy regarding the use of their filters, including guarantees that teachers can 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. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the Senate Education committee in February. Similar legislation passed both the House and Senate in 2015, but died on a technicality when neither chamber approved the opposite chamber’s bill before the legislative session’s close.
Voting Rights Bills
Comprehensive Election Reform (H 7249, S 2719)
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 January, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committees in support of perennial legislation by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7249) to make comprehensive changes to the election laws and resolve these long-standing issues. The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee on the Senate version, sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Crowley (S 2719), in March. Among other things, the bill will 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.
Early Voting (H 7248, S 2358)
While a majority of the states have a process for in-person early voting, Rhode Island’s voters remain restricted to voting on Election Day. Previous general elections have brought long lines and discouraged voters, undoubtedly discouraging Rhode Islanders from making their voices heard at the polls. In January, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee on a slew of election-related legislation, including in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Christopher Blazejewski to join the 37 other states that currently have an in-person early voting system. The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of companion legislation by Senator Erin Lynch Prata (S 2358) in March.
Electronic Voter Registration (H 7024, S 2513)
In April, Governor Raimondo signed into law Rhode Island's new electronic voter registration law. 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. This legislation, sponsored by Senator Gayle Goldin (S 2513) and Representative Aaron Regunberg (H 7024) in January, will allow voters to easily register and keep their registration up to date, and includes a number of critical protections for the privacy of personal voter information. In addition, this legislation has been hailed by the national ACLU as a "voting precedent every state should follow," because, following ACLU advocacy, this legislation includes the nation's first language specifically making online registration accessible to voters with disabilities.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 7400, S 2310)
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.) In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 7400) to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. In April, the Senate Judiciary committee approved companion legislation, sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (S 2310). The full Senate has passed the legislation for the last two years; it has never moved in the House.
War on Drugs Bills
Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention (H 7003, S 2002)PASSED
The General Assembly acted quickly in 2016 to restore the life-saving Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act, which expired in 2015 when the legislature failed to reauthorize the law. In July 2015, the law’s protection against arrest for certain drug crimes of those who call 911 in the event of an overdose disappeared, leaving people torn between saving lives and spending time in jail. In the first weeks of the 2016 session, the House and Senate approved legislation sponsored by Representative Robert Craven (H 7003) and Senator Michael McCaffrey (S 2002) not only restoring those protections but expanding them. The new law ensures that individuals on probation or parole cannot be considered to have violated their probation or parole if they call for help in the case of an overdose. Governor Raimondo signed the legislation into law on January 27th, restoring the state’s commitment to saving lives instead of prosecuting drug-dependent individuals.
Juvenile Marijuana Use (H 7362, S 2544)
When Rhode Island decriminalized marijuana just a few years ago, it was designed to keep youth possessing small amounts of marijuana out of jail and away from the lifetime of consequences a drug conviction can bring. This year, the General Assembly is considering legislation, submitted on behalf of the Attorney General, that undermines that effort by placing juveniles caught with marijuana back in front of a judge. In March, the ACLU testified before the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare (H 7362) and Senate Judiciary committee (S 2544) that once a child is in Family Court, the judge can impose any number of requirements upon the juvenile and incarcerate them when they do not follow through. Once a child is placed in the Family Court jurisdiction it can be very difficult for them to disentangle themselves; the disastrous result can be that the child spends time in the Training School for behavior which Rhode Island otherwise imposes a simple fine.
Sick Tax (H 7454 - Article 14)
An article in the Governor's budget threatens the state’s medical marijuana program and the ability of patients and cardholders to afford necessary medication. Among other provisions, the article imposes a tax of between $150 and $350 for each plant grown, reduces the number of plants each patient can grow, and eliminates the ability for patients or caregivers to provide their excess marijuana to other patients. The ACLU testified in opposition to this article before the House and Senate Finance committees. Earlier this year, we joined with medical marijuana patients to raise concerns about this article, noting, "the patients and caregivers affected by this proposal grow medical marijuana to ease their symptoms and to help others; they are not running a lucrative drug trade. The state should treat them just as they would any other patient using legal medication."