2014 Legislative Session
The new legislative session brings new opportunities for success, new threats to freedom, and the return of familiar legislation set to impact civil liberties in a host of ways. The ACLU will weigh in on hundreds of bills this year, fighting to protect and defend civil liberties wherever we can. Below are just some of the bills the ACLU is working on this season; check back in for regular updates as the year progresses.
Spousal Notification for Abortion (H 7223)
While the General Assembly is considering no fewer than seven measures this session aimed at restricting reproductive freedom, lawmakers are also considering a number of measures updating and clarifying Rhode Island law by eliminating long-unconstitutional measures that remain on the books. In March, the ACLU of RI testified in favor of legislation (H 7223) sponsored by Representative Patrick O’Neill to formally repeal an unconstitutional law requiring a physician to notify a woman’s husband in order to terminate a pregnancy. The law was declared unconstitutional in Rhode Island following a court challenge by the ACLU in 1984, but still appears in the General Laws to this day. The ACLU testified that keeping such an unconstitutional provision enshrined in state law was at best misleading, leaving many to believe that spousal consent is required for an abortion – a dangerous requirement for any woman whose relationship involves domestic violence.
Limits on Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (H 7779)
The ACLU also testified in support of legislation (H 7779) sponsored by Representative Frank Ferri repealing two laws that attempted to impose unnecessary and undue burdens on women by limiting insurance coverage of abortion, but were also struck down by the courts. One of the laws would have required insurance companies to provide abortion coverage only as an optional rider, and at an additional cost to women. The other would have barred the state and municipalities from providing employees health insurance that covered abortion. In testimony, the RI ACLU called for these discriminatory laws to be fully repealed.
Abortion Ultrasound (H 7303)
Among the measures aimed at restricting reproductive freedom is a bill (H 7303) requiring an ultrasound be conducted on any woman before she can obtain an abortion. While the woman can refuse to look at the image, it must be displayed so she can see it, and the doctor must provide a medical description of the images. Recent studies demonstrate conclusively that such ultrasound requirements rarely dissuade women from seeking abortions; rather, this legislation serves only to shame women seeking abortions. The ACLU has urged that the bill be rejected.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance ( H 7177, S 2221A)
In March the Senate Health and Human Services committee recommended for passage legislation barring health insurance companies from using gender as a factor in setting premiums. 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 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. Sponsored by Representative Donna Walsh (H 7177) and Senator Susan Sosnowski (S 2221A) this legislation aims to close those gaps and ensure that gender rating cannot occur in Rhode Island regardless of any changes to federal law. The ACLU testified in support of a companion bill before the House Corporations committee in February.
Criminal Justice Bills
Strip Searches (H 7686, S 2668)
In 2002, a federal appeals court covering Rhode Island ruled unconstitutional the arbitrary strip searches of persons arrested for minor offenses, and Rhode Island prison and police officials abided by that decision without serious incident for ten years. In 2012, unfortunately, the US Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, overruled the First Circuit’s decision, opening the door for the Department of Corrections and local police to conduct intrusive, humiliating, and unnecessary searches on any detainee in their custody, including those in pre-trial detention for minor non-violent crimes who are not suspected of carrying contraband. In March, the House and Senate Judiciary committees heard testimony on ACLU-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Donna Walsh (H 7686) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 2668) that aims to reinstate the policy in place under the First Circuit decision by requiring municipal law enforcement to have reasonable suspicion prior to performing a strip search of misdemeanant arrestees, and a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a body cavity search. Similar legislation was heard, but never voted on, last year.
Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment (H 7456, S 2634)
As part of a package of legislation aimed at expanding the state’s computer crimes laws, the General Assembly is considering legislation overhauling the state’s prohibition on cyberstalking and cyberharassment. Under current law, an individual may be penalized for cyberstalking and cyberharassment if they have committed a series of acts online specifically to harass an individual or their family. In March, the ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee that under this new legislation (H 7456, S 2634) one single act online that is then used by others to justify harassment would be criminal, whether or not the individual was even aware of harassment that subsequently took place. As such, the legislation raises serious First Amendment concerns and will likely have a chilling effect on any communication via the Internet. The ACLU reiterated these concerns to the House Judiciary committee in April.
DNA Testing of Arrestees (H 7304, S 2101A)
Back again is legislation permitting the collection of DNA samples from any person simply arrested for a number of offenses. Under current Rhode Island law, DNA can be collected from individuals convicted of certain felonies; under this legislation, any person merely arrested for a “crime of violence” – including larceny – would have their DNA collected and stored. In February and March, the ACLU testified before the Senate (S 2101 Sub A) and House (H 7304) Judiciary committees that such collection undermines the presumption of innocence and represents a dangerous step toward the creation of a comprehensive DNA database. Additionally, such an expansion of DNA testing would place a significant burden on the Department of Health, exacerbating an existing backlog and delaying justice in those cases where DNA is a critical investigatory element. The Senate Judiciary committee approved the legislation in March, as it has done in prior years. Previously, the legislation passed the full Senate but died when it failed to receive a vote in the House Judiciary committee.
Parole for Individuals Convicted of Murder (H 7100, H 7101, 7103, S 2029, S 2031, S 2036)
Following a series of unpopular decisions by the Parole Board, the General Assembly is considering a number of changes to existing parole laws for individuals convicted of murder. In February and March the ACLU testified before the Senate and House Judiciary committees, respectively, in opposition to a trio of bills aimed at further penalizing those convicted of first or second degree murder. Two sets of bills, (H 7100/S 2036) and (H 7101/S 2029), would extend the amount of a sentence an individual must serve prior to parole if they are convicted of first or second degree murder. The ACLU testified that such legislation ties the hands of judges and reduces incentives for prisoners to engage in rehabilitative services, at a cost of more than $40,000 per inmate per year. Another set of bills (H 7103/S 2031) aims to create a registry of individuals convicted of murder and paroled, similar to the sex offender registry. The ACLU testified that such a registry would lack the individual analysis of each paroled individual, providing no insight as to their potential to reoffend, and would only stigmatize and further alienate rehabilitated individuals from those around them.
Revenge Porn (H 7382, S 2644)
In March, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in opposition to legislation (H 7382, S 2644) addressing the electronic dissemination of sexually explicit material, often referred to as “revenge porn.” The affiliate testified that, while there are legitimate and serious privacy issues surrounding the transmission of a person’s private images without their consent, those issues are more appropriately dealt with in the civil court where remedies to these matters already exist. The ACLU further testified that the legislation as worded could result in heavy felony penalties levied against individuals who shared an image that was taken consensually and meant to be shared, simply because they did not receive explicit consent from the original subject. Part of the “computer crimes” legislation introduced by the Attorney General’s office, this legislation has failed to move out of committee for the past several years.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
E-Verify (H 7463)
The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in March before the House Labor committee in support of legislation sponsored by Represntative Grace Diaz (H 7463) expressly keeping participation in the E-Verify program voluntary. The ACLU noted that E-Verify continues to be an error-prone system that disproportionately disqualifies legal workers with Hispanic and Arabic last names, is used by employers to discriminate against potential workers, and fails to prevent undocumented workers from obtaining employment.
Domestic Drones (H 7170)
In February, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of legislation restricting the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by law enforcement. Although the technology is not yet used in Rhode Island, increasing interest by law enforcement nationwide indicates drones are on their way. Currently, state law lacks any privacy protections regarding the use of drones, running a significant risk to Rhode Islanders' privacy in the interim between when drones arrive and when protections can be implemented. ACLU-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Teresa Tanzi (H 7170) would enact a number of critical privacy provisions, including requiring a warrant before a drone could be used – except in certain emergency circumstances – requiring a transparent process for obtaining and using drones, banning drones from carrying weapons, and limiting the data that can be obtained and the length of time it can be stored. Similar legislation was considered last year, but failed to move out of committee.
Automated License Plate Readers (H 7461, S 2614)
In March, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of legislation restricting the use of automated licensed plate readers (ALPRs). Proposed as a way to detect and ticket uninsured motorists, ALPRs have the capacity to track the GPS location of every car they pass, and to transmit insurance and registration information to third parties. Although ALPRs are gaining interest among law enforcement nationwide, their use, the information captured, and who may access that information remains largely unregulated. Legislation sponsored by Representative Larry Valencia (H 7461) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 2614) aims to clarify the acceptable use of this technology, including for locating missing persons and identifying vehicles belonging to individuals with outstanding felony warrants, and place limits on the retention of data collected by ALPRs. Similar legislation failed to move out of the House Judiciary committee last year.
Cell Phone Location Tracking (H 7190, S 2367)
In February, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees regulating the collection of cell phone location information by law enforcement. Part of a comprehensive package of legislation by the ACLU aimed at protecting privacy, legislation sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7190) and Senator Donna Nesselbush (S 2367) would bar law enforcement from obtaining cell phone location information from telecommunications companies without a warrant, except in certain emergency situations. In 2012 the General Assembly made it easier for telecommunications companies to share cell phone location information with any entity, for any reason, exacerbating existing concerns about the rampant use of cell phone location information. This legislation would implement a warrant requirement, unless law enforcement were seeking location information in an emergency dealing with a threat of death or serious physical injury.
Cell Phone Warrants (H 7189, S 2657)
Back for a third time is an ACLU-drafted bill, sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7189) and Senator Donna Nesselbush (S 2657) requiring law enforcement obtain a warrant prior to conducting a search of any cell phone. As cell phone technology has advanced, the devices we carry on a daily basis have begun to carry substantial amounts of information, including e-mails, photos, and records of where we have traveled. Cell phones are harmless once confiscated, and yet the immense information contained within a phone remains unprotected by any warrant requirement. In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant before police can search the content of arrestees’ cell phones, but the General Assembly must act to codify this requirement in to law and ensure that Rhode Islanders' rights remain protected. Similar legislation was passed by the General Assembly in 2012 but was unexpectedly vetoed by Governor Chafee. The ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of this legislation in March; a Senate hearing is expected soon.
Employer and School Access to Social Media Accounts (H 7124 Sub A, S 2095)
As social media use has become ubiquitous, so too has the temptation for schools and employers to use social media information to observe the activities of students and employees. ACLU-drafted legislation, sponsored by Representative Brian Kennedy (H 7124 Sub A) and Senator Dominick Ruggerio (S 2095), aims to protect users’ private social media profiles from undue intrusion by barring schools and employers from requesting or requiring students’, employees’ or applicants’ social media passwords, or otherwise gaining access to their private social media accounts. Several states have already approved similar legislation. In March, the House and Senate Judiciary committees each approved versions of the bill for passage. A House vote is scheduled; a Senate vote is pending.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Criminal Background Checks (H 7505)
Over the past several years, the General Assembly has passed a number of new laws requiring nationwide criminal background checks be conducted on employees and volunteers across a wide spectrum of job titles. Often, these new laws contain little discussion on what information is sought, who may see it, or what is to happen once such information is discovered. Omnibus legislation sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7505) aims to clarify and bring uniformity to the background check process by stating what constitutes disqualifying information, instituting a background check process so applicants have the ability to be evaluated independently, and ensuring that no individual may be forced to pay for the privilege of their own background check. Similar legislation was considered by the House Judiciary committee in 2012, but ultimately failed to move.
Students Rights Bills
High Stakes Testing (H 7327, H 7672, S 2185)
One of the more passionate civil liberties discussions to arise in recent months has been around the issue of high-stakes testing, or the use of the NECAP exam as a zero-sum graduation requirement. Up to 40% of Rhode Island’s students are at risk of not graduating this year, and special education, limited English proficient, economically disadvantaged, and Latino and African-American students are disproportionately affected. The General Assembly will again consider legislation banning the use of standardized tests as a high-stakes graduation requirement. Previously, the General Assembly approved a joint resolution asking the Board of Education to delay implementation of the requirement and consider other options; the Board of Education has thus far refused. In February, the ACLU, parent and student groups, and national education experts testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Eileen Naughton (H 7672) to prohibit the use of standardized testing in evaluating a student’s eligibility to graduate. In March, the Senate Education committee recommended the Senate version of the legislation, sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (S 2185), for a full Senate vote.
Internet Filtering (H 7828)
ACLU-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Arthur Handy (H 7828) will help aims to address the use of Internet filters on school computers. Statewide, school districts block students from vastly more information than is required by federal law, often derailing classroom lessons and hindering the ability for students to complete homework with no advance notice. This legislation will confront this issue by requiring schools maintain a detailed written policy regarding the use of their filters, 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. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in March. Similar legislation was heard, but never voted on, last year.
School Discipline (H 7581, S 2430)
Even as a consensus grows nationwide that out-of-school suspensions bear a lifetime of effects and should be used for only the most serious offenses, Rhode Island’s students are routinely suspended from school for small infractions that pose no risk of harm serious distraction to their peers. Following the release of an ACLU report demonstrating the tremendous overuse of suspensions in Rhode Island’s schools and the disproportionate impact on minority students, the General Assembly is again considering legislation to limit the use of out-of-school suspensions and address the pervasive racial disparities in discipline rates. Sponsored by Representative Teresa Tanzi (H 7581) and Senator Juan Pichardo (S 2430), the legislation requires that suspensions be served in-school unless a student poses a physical risk or serious distraction to the students, and requiring school districts examine their discipline data and come up with plans to mitigate any disproportionate suspension rates that may exist.
Voting Rights Bills
The Affiliate will again introduce legislation making a number of critical changes to the state’s election laws, including expanding the number of provisional ballots counted and the procedures for recounts.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 7263, S 2286)
When it comes to drawing new voting lines, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the Census worker comes through are recorded as living on Howard Avenue, including individuals awaiting trial 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. In February, the ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (S 2286) to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. Companion legislation sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 7263) awaits a hearing in the House Judiciary committee.
Voter ID Repeal (S 2641)
The ACLU of RI continues to support the repeal of the state's restrictive voter identification law that, as of the start of 2014, requires all voters to show a form of photo identification at the polls before they could cast their ballots. The ACLU and many other civil rights groups opposed to the voter ID law are especially concerned as to how the new photo ID requirement could risk disenfranchising the poor, the elderly, racial minorities and other vulnerable groups that are least likely to have identification or the documents necessary to obtain ID. Senator Gayle Goldin's bill (S 2641) would repeal the voter ID law that has left many voters less able to cast their vote at the polls.