2015 Legislative Session
The 2015 General Assembly Session is underway and the ACLU of Rhode Island has been actively reviewing and testifying on a number of bills that have serious implications--either good or bad--for civil liberties in Rhode Island. The issues we weigh in on range from police practices, the "war on drugs", and privacy to students' rights, First Amendment rights, and open government. While we draft and support a number of bills to strengthen individual rights and freedoms, we also fight legislation that threatens civil liberties in some way. This page is frequently updated as bills move through the legislature, so check back often to keep up-to-date on these important bills.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance (H 5754, S 0318)
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) aims to close these gaps and ensure that gender rating cannot occur in Rhode Island regardless of any changes to federal law. The Senate passed this legislation in both 2013 and 2014, but it has not previously received a vote in the House.
Military Status Housing Discrimination (H 5593, S 0241 A)
In March, following testimony by the ACLU and other advocates, the Senate Judiciary committee recommended passage of 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 0241), 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. Similar legislation passed the House last year but died in the Senate.
Criminal Justice Bills
Juvenile Life Without Parole (H 5650, S 0389)
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 it on a case-by-case basis. Under legislation introduced by Representative Christopher Blazejewski (H 5650) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 0389), however, that penalty without be off-limits altogether for juvenile defendants. 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.
Threats Against Schools (H 5068)
In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in opposition to legislation (H 5068) making it a felony to use a computer, phone, or similar device to make threats against a school or daycare facility. 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.
Unauthorized Computer Access (H 5458)
The ACLU also testified before the House Judiciary committee in February in opposition to legislation (H 5458) dealing with unauthorized computer access. The ACLU testified that the breadth of the language would lump whistleblowers and overzealous spouses in with hackers, resulting in felony penalties and up to five years in prison. Similar broad language appearing in federal law has created a number of interpretation issues in federal court; the ACLU has urged the language be amended before passage. Similar legislation has been heard, but never passed, in previous years.
HIV Transmission (H 5245, S 0338)
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.
Free Speech Bills
Obstructing Traffic (H 5192, H5193, S 0219)
In February, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in opposition to legislation (H 5192, H5193, S 0219) creating a new crime of obstructing traffic or obstructing a freeway. While 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, legislation imposing misdemeanor penalties was no less troubling or unnecessary. The ACLU testified 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.
Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment (H 5467)
As part of a package of computer crimes legislation put forth by the Attorney General’s office, the General Assembly is considering 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, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee that under this legislation (H 5467), 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 raises 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.
Open Government Bills
Administrative Procedures Act (H 5451)
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 state 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. Legislation introduced this year by Representative Carlos Tobon (H 5451) aims to remove the Board of Election’s exemption, resulting in a more open, transparent, and representative election process.
Police Practices Bills
Civil Asset Forfeiture (H 5631)
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. This year, the General Assembly will consider legislation (H 5631), sponsored by House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, to limit this practice by requiring an individual to be convinced 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)
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. 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 the telecommunications company, 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. This legislation, sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello, would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before requesting location information, except in emergencies dealing with the threat of death or serious physical injury. Similar legislation has been considered previously, but never voted on.
Students Rights Bills
Internet Filtering of School Computers (H 5581, S 0460)
The ACLU testified in March before the Senate Education committee in support of legislation addressing the use of Internet filters on school computers. Statewide, 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. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Adam Satchell (S 0460) with a corresponding House version by Representative Arthur Handy (H 5581), addresses this issue by 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.
School Discipline (H 5383, S 0299)
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. Legislation introduced by Representative John Lombardi (H 5383) and Senator Juan Pichardo (S 0299) hopes to address this issue 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.
School Computer Privacy
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.
Voting Rights Bills
Voter ID Repeal (S 0343)
The General Assembly will once again consider legislation, sponsored by Senator Gayle Goldin (S 0343), eliminating 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.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 5155, S 0239)
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, 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.
Comprehensive Election Reform (H 5372)
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. The General Assembly will again consider legislation (H 5372) by Representative Edie Ajello to make comprehensive changes to the election laws and resolve these long-standing issues. Among other things, the bill seeks to ensure every vote is counted in an open and transparent manner, increases the number of provisional ballots counted, and requires post-election audits to evaluate the accuracy of voting machines.
War on Drugs Bills
Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention (H 5416, S 0576)
The state’s life-saving Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act is set to expire this year, and needs to be reauthorized. To help ensure that people do not hesitate calling 911 in the case of an emergency out of fear of jail time, the law prohibits law enforcement from arresting for certain drug crimes those who call for help in the case of a drug overdose, However, it does 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. Legislation sponsored by Representative Robert Craven (H 5416) and Senator Michael McCaffrey (S 0576) would expand the law to protect individuals on probation or parole from punishment when they seek help in case of an overdose.
Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana (H 5777, S 0510)
In March, the ACLU participated in a press conference announcing the introduction of legislation 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. Sponsored by Representative Scott Slater (H 5777) and Senator Joshua Miller (S 0510), the legislation would allow 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.
Synthetic Cannabinoids (S 0509)
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.
Workplace Rights Bills
Pregnancy Discrimination (H 5674, S 0276)
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 5674) and Senator Hanna Gallo (S 0276) seeks to protect Rhode Island’s pregnant workers by ending this practice. The Senate approved similar legislation last year, but it failed to receive a committee vote in the House.
Drug Testing of State Workers (H 5351)
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.