2014 Legislative Session
There were some great successes in the 2014 legislative session, and there were some strong setbacks. In critical recognition of the different needs of students, the General Assembly approved legislation prohibiting the use of standardized testing as a high stakes graduation requirement for the next three years. The legislature also approved bills protecting password-protected social media information from the view of employers and school officials, and rejected legislation restricting abortion access.
At the same time, the General Assembly approved legislation significantly undermining privacy and the presumption of innocence by requiring the collection of DNA from individuals arrested for, but not yet convicted of, a number of offenses. The General Assembly also approved legislation weakening the state’s medical marijuana laws and, despite strong pressure from voters, failed to repeal or amend the state’s voter ID law. The ACLU monitored more than 800 bills this legislative year, providing written and verbal testimony in hearings, proposing amendments, and working in partnership with other organizations to protect your civil liberties. Below are the end results of just some of the hundreds of bills we worked on this year.
Spousal Notification for Abortion (H 7223)DIED
The General Assembly considered no fewer than seven measures this session aimed at restricting reproductive freedom, but lawmakers also considered a number of positive measures to update and clarify Rhode Island law by eliminating long-unconstitutional measures that remain on the books. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Judiciary committee in favor of legislation (H 7223) sponsored by Representative Patrick O’Neill to formally repeal a long-invalid 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. Unfortunately, the bill was never voted on in committee.
Limits on Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (H 7779)DIED
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. Once again, the committee took no action and the bill died.
Abortion Ultrasound (H 7303)DIED
Among the measures aimed at restricting reproductive freedom is a bill (H 7303) requiring an ultrasound be conducted on any woman before she could obtain an abortion. While the woman would be able refuse to look at the image, it would have been required to displayed so she could see it, and the doctor would have to provide a medical description of the images. Recent studies demonstrate conclusively that such ultrasound requirements rarely dissuade women from seeking abortions; rather, this legislation served only to shame women seeking abortions. The ACLU urged in testimony that the bill be rejected, and it died in committee.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance ( H 7177, S 2221A)Passed Senate, Died in House
In April, the Senate for the second year in a row approved 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 aimed to close those gaps and ensure that gender rating cannot occur in Rhode Island regardless of any changes to federal law. The ACLU provided testimony in February, but the bill once again did not receive a vote in the House.
Military Status Housing Discrimination (H 7393A, S 2809)Passed House, Died in Senate
Complaints by Rhode Island’s veterans that they had been discriminated against in housing decisions because of their veteran status prompted legislation by Representative Jan Malik (H 7393A) and Senator Walter Felag (S 2809) to make such discrimination illegal. In February and May, the ACLU testified before the House Veterans Affairs and Senate Judiciary committee, respectively, in support of this legislation. The ACLU further noted that attempts to limit the legislation to protect only those veterans given Honorable or General discharges could result in discrimination against veterans given Other Than Honorable administrative discharges, including those who are pushed out because of injuries suffered in combat or discharged for being gay under the now-defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The House passed a version of the legislation in June, but it died in the Senate without receiving a committee vote.
Racial Profiling (H 8345, S 2976A)Passed Senate, Died in House
Ten years after it was first introduced and three years after a near-compromise fell through at the last minute, legislation addressing racial profiling by law enforcement in Rhode Island passed the Senate in June. Sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (S 2976A) prohibits the searching of juveniles and pedestrians except when law enforcement has reasonable suspicion or probable cause of criminal activity, resumed data collection, and made certain agreements between law enforcement and immigration officials public. Unfortunately, the bill died without a hearing in the House, where it was sponsored by Representative Joe Almeida (H 8345).
Criminal Justice Bills
Strip Searches (H 7686, S 2668)DIED
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; the same occurred this year as the bill died in committee in both houses.
Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment (H 7456, S 2634)DIED
As part of a package of legislation aimed at expanding the state’s computer crimes laws, the General Assembly considered 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 raised serious First Amendment concerns and would likely have a chilling effect on any communication via the Internet. The ACLU reiterated these concerns to the House Judiciary committee in April. Neither bill was voted on in committee, and the legislation died.
DNA Testing of Arrestees (H 7304A as amended, S 2101B)PASSED
In June, the House and Senate approved disturbing legislation (H 7304A as amended, S 2101B) allowing for the collection of DNA from people arrested – but not yet put on trial – 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 and House 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. While the House added provisions to the legislation allowing for the automatic expungement of DNA samples when a person is found not guilty or the charges are dropped, and providing that no samples will be processed until after an arrestee goes before a judge for arraignment, the legislation will still result in a tremendous invasion of privacy for many innocent Rhode Islanders. Despite the ACLU's advocacy for a veto, the Governor signed this legislation into law on June 30
Parole for Individuals Convicted of Murder (H 7100, H 7101, 7103, S 2029, S 2031, S 2036A)Mixed Results
Following a series of unpopular decisions by the Parole Board, the General Assembly weighed 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 2036A) and (H 7101/S 2029), would have extended 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) aimed 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. The Senate approved both S 2029 and S 2036A, but neither bill received a vote in the House and all six bills died.
Mandatory Sentencing for Firearm Offenses (various)DIED
The General Assembly is also considered a variety of legislation aimed at firearms possession and use, including a number of bills imposing mandatory sentences. Mandatory sentences require judges, over their own judgment, to impose lengthy sentences upon individuals who could be better served with shorter or deferred sentences. These bills instead gave sentencing discretion to prosecutors, who choose whether to charge an individual with an offense that carries a mandatory sentence. All bills died in committee without receiving a vote.
Street Gangs (H 7457 as amended, S 2639 as amended)PASSED
After more than an hour of heated debate on the last day of the legislative session, the House approved recurring legislation (H 7457 as amended) imposing additional penalties – up to an extra ten years – on individuals who participate in crimes if they are deemed to do so as part of a vaguely defined “criminal street gang.” The legislation, which passed the Senate in April (S 2639 as amended) broadly defined a “criminal street gang” to include any group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, which has an identifiable name or sign, color or symbol. Further, the legislation does not require a person to be a member of the gang in order to suffer enhanced penalties, just be associated with any person subjectively determined to be a member. As a result, the bill’s greatest impact could be on young people coerced into engaging in criminal conduct on behalf of a gang. The ACLU and more than 20 other community organizations reiterated these concerns to Governor Chafee, asking for a veto, but he signed the bill into law on July 1.
Trafficking of Persons (H 7612A, S 2602)Passed Senate, Died in House
A prime example of how quickly legislation can go from good to bad came in the form of legislation, passed by the Senate (S 2602) in June, that purported to strengthen the state’s laws against human trafficking, but in fact undermined the law entirely. Publicly declared as legislation meant to further differentiate between consensual prostitution and human trafficking, the legislation actually eliminated that differentiation, imposing the same penalties – including up to twenty years in prison – against those who participate in consensual sex work as those who kidnap and force victims into the sex trade. In March, the ACLU testified before the House (H 7612A) and Senate Judiciary committees that the bill would undoubtedly penalize individuals involved in prostitution, while glutting the system and making it more difficult for victims of human trafficking to receive help. The Senate passed the legislation in June and the House Judiciary committee approved a version of the legislation shortly thereafter, but the bill never reached the House floor for a vote and died.
Larceny of Farm Products (H 7619A S 2643A)PASSED
Rhode Island law generally makes larceny a felony if the item stolen is worth $1,500 or more, but legislation passed by both the House (H 7619A) and the Senate (S 2643A) drastically undercuts this limit, allowing for larceny of farm products to be considered a felony if the farm product is worth just $250. In March, we testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees that, while these thefts should remain criminal, elevating them from misdemeanor to felony crimes solely because they took place on a farm instead of a person’s backyard was far out of line with current laws and raised serious concerns about the appropriateness of the penalties. Unfortunately, the Senate passed the legislation in March and the House followed in June. The ACLU requested a veto from the Governor, but he signed the bill into law on June 23.
Unauthorized Computer Access (H 7509, S 2608)DIED
Another part of the Attorney General’s package of legislation dealing with computer crimes carried still more concerns about the breadth of these changes. In March and April, the ACLU testified before the Senate (S 2608) and House (H 7509) Judiciary committees, respectively, that legislation prohibiting unauthorized access to a computer could penalize a larger number of individuals than intended. Under the legislation, any person who accessed a computer without or in excess of their existing authorization would be guilty of a felony and subject to five years in prison, including whistleblowers and overzealous spouses. Similarly broad language appearing in federal law has created a number of interpretation issues in federal court; ACLU urged the language be amended before passage. Neither bill received a committee vote before the end of the session.
Due Process Bills
Probation Conditions (H 7844, S 2586)PASSED
In June, the House passed legislation (H 7844) allowing the Department of Corrections to modify the terms of a person’s probation at any time, and for any reason. In March and April, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate (S 2586) Judiciary committees, respectively, that such legislation raises serious constitutional concerns. An individual who accepts a plea deal anticipating one set of conditions and is then given a completely different set of conditions months or even years later is denied a full understanding of the provisions of their sentence, raising serious concerns that a person’s sentence is essentially increased after the fact. Unfortunately, the Senate approved the legislation ten days later.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Revenge Porn (H 7382A, S 2644 as amended)Passed Senate, Died in House
In March, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in opposition to legislation (H 7382A, S 2644 as amended) 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. The Senate approved the legislation in May; the House followed in June, but the bill was recommitted a few days later and did not receive another vote before the end of the session.
Disseminating Indecent Material to Minors (H 7766A, S 2610A)PASSED
The First Amendment problems continue with legislation aimed at prohibiting the electronic dissemination of “indecent material” to minors, which was passed by the House in June (H 7766A). In March and April, the ACLU testified before the Senate (S 2610A) and House Judiciary committees, respectively, that the legislation’s overly broad definition of “indecent materials” would encompass award-willing films containing full frontal nudity, art pieces, and even sex education texts. Any individual who transmits these images to a minor is subject to felony charges, five years in prison, a fine, and mandatory sex offender notification requirements. Despite these concerns, the legislation was approved by the Senate, and is now headed to the Governor’s desk; the ACLU has requested a veto.
Anonymous Literature (H 8130, S 2847)Passed House, Died in Senate
In May, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation to protect the freedom of political speech. Sponsored by Representative Joseph Shekarchi, the legislation (H 8130) repealed a section of law that is largely regarded as unconstitutional, as it prohibits the distribution of anonymous political literature. In April, the ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in support of companion legislation (S 2847), sponsored by Senator Michael McCaffrey. The ACLU noted that passage of this legislation would render moot a lawsuit filed by the Affiliate against the Smithfield Police Department, which has publicly sworn to continue arresting people under this statute even though the Attorney General’s office has acknowledged the unconstitutionality of the law and declined to prosecute. Despite the pending litigation and lack of opposition to the legislation, the Senate failed to vote on the bill before the end of the legislative session and the unconstitutional law remains on the books.
Online Impersonation (H 7845A, S 2624B)PASSED
Yet another problematic part of the Attorney General’s package of computer crimes legislation (H 7845, S 2624) made it a crime to use “the name or persona of another person” to create a web page, send an e-mail or otherwise post on the internet without the person’s consent, including the name of elected officials. The ACLU testified that the legislation could easily criminalize a variety of protected free speech, including satirical political websites and emails attacking a lawmaker’s past dealings. Despite the legislation’s clear First Amendment issues, the House and Senate approved the legislation in June.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
E-Verify (H 7463, S 2030)DIED
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. In March, the ACLU gave similar testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee in opposition to legislation (S 2030) requiring the use of E-Verify by virtually all Rhode Island employers. Neither bill received a committee vote.
Court Interpreters (H 7306, S 2549)PASSED
In June, the Governor signed into law legislation expanding the availability of interpreters for court proceedings involving people who do not have the ability to understand or communicate effectively in English. The ACLU first filed a complaint ten years ago regarding the lack of court interpreters for individuals whose English proficiency is limited; that complaint resulted in a settlement earlier this year. The legislation, sponsored by Representative Robert Craven (H 7306) and Senator Michael McCaffrey (S 2549) helps ensure equal access to justice for all individuals, regardless of their language proficiency.
Medical Privacy Bills
NICS (H 7939A, S 2774A)PASSED
In June, the House passed legislation governing the transmission of mental health civil certification records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the database used to determine who is eligible to purchase a weapon under state and federal laws. Since October, the ACLU has been monitoring and testifying before the Joint Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force to ensure that any amendments to mental health confidentiality laws were minimal, and that the rights of those who have received involuntary mental health treatment are maintained. In large part because of the ACLU’s work, the resulting legislation (H 7939A) affected only those who have undergone involuntary commitments for longer than ten days, transmitted only identifying information and no medical information, and allowing for the expungement of information from the database after a period of time. The Senate approved companion legislation (S 2774A) in June.
Elder Abuse HCCA (H 7091A, S 2094)PASSED
In June, the House passed legislation (H 7091A) requiring health care providers to report alleged incidents of elder abuse to law enforcement, furthering a trend in recent years of the General Assembly approving legislation weakening the state’s health care confidentiality laws. In April, the ACLU testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee that medical providers who suspect elder abuse is taking place are already required to report such abuse to the department of elderly affairs. Once allegations have been substantiated, law enforcement is notified. In bypassing the department of elderly affairs, this legislation ignores the expertise of the department and the wishes of the elderly patient, and automatically requires law enforcement to intervene in a wide variety of family situations. The ACLU gave similar testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee (S 2094A) in May, but the Senate approved the legislation in June.
Open Government Bills
Newspaper Notices (various)
Perennial bills eliminating the posting of legal notices in newspapers have returned. Public bodies argue that being posting notices online versus in the newspaper would present cost savings. However, the ACLU and other open government groups note that while Internet access continues to increase, as many as one in five American adults still do not use the Internet. Until this “digital divide” is eliminated, the groups argue that public information should be available in multiple formats, including newspapers, so that all members of the community can have access to it.
Police Practices Bills
Littering Fines and Police Department Revenue (H 8177A, H 8279, S 2187, S 2721A)PASSED
A set of bills dealing with the state’s littering laws will result in thousands of dollars of fines for Rhode Islanders, and thousands of dollars in proceeds for local law enforcement. In May, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in opposition to legislation (H 8177A) raising the current penalties for a first offense of littering to anywhere between $85 and $1,000. For a second offense, the fines would fall anywhere between $300 and $5,000. The ACLU testified that such an arbitrary and tremendous range gives absolutely no ability to a person facing a littering ticket to know how much in debt they will find themselves when they leave the traffic tribunal. Despite the concerns, both the House and the Senate (S 2721A) approved the legislation in June.
To make matters worse, legislation (H 8279, S 2187), also approved by the House and Senate in June, incentivizes increased ticketing and ticketing for the highest possible fees. This legislation authorizes local law enforcement agencies to receive 30% of the revenue received from littering fines, meaning that local law enforcement stands to receive up to $1,500 from each littering ticket they dole out. The ACLU testified that the decision over what laws to enforce or not to enforce should be based on a concern for public safety, not revenue, and that this legislation flies in the face of that premise.
Domestic Drones (H 7170)DIED
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 have enacted 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. The bill did not receive a vote in committee.
Automated License Plate Readers (H 7461, S 2614)DIED
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) hoped 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. Neither bill received a committee vote.
Cell Phone Location Tracking (H 7190, S 2367)DIED
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 have barred law enforcement from obtaining cell phone location information from telecommunications companies without a warrant, except in certain emergency situations. In 2013 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 have implemented a warrant requirement, unless law enforcement were seeking location information in an emergency dealing with a threat of death or serious physical injury. By the end of the session, however, neither the House nor the Senate committee had voted on the legislation.
Cell Phone Warrants (H 7189, S 2657)DIED
Back for a third time was 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. A case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court may soon rule on the constitutionality of searching an individual’s cell phone without a warrant, but approval of this legislation would have protected Rhode Islanders regardless of any action by the courts. 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, and the Senate Judiciary committee in May, but neither committee voted on the legislation by the end of the session.
Employer and School Access to Social Media Accounts (H 7124B, S 2095A as amended)PASSED
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 7124B) and Senator Dominick Ruggerio (S 2095A as amended), and approved by both the House and Senate in June will 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; Rhode Island joined the pack when Governor Chafee signed the legislation on June 30.
Underground Economy (H 7870, S 3035A)Passed as Budget Amendment
Legislation creating a task force on employee misclassification and the underground economy contained one of the more dangerous anti-privacy provisions of the year. The six member agencies comprising the Task Force – including the Attorney General’s office, tax administrator, Department of Public Safety and Department of Labor and Training – maintain a tremendous amount of highly sensitive information about Rhode Islanders that is largely protected for release by a number of confidentiality laws. The legislation (H 7870, S 3035A), however, allowed the Task Force to ignore every confidentiality provision in Rhode Island law to share any information they desire between the other members, with minimal justification. In April and June, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Finance committees, respectively, that this provision would allow for virtually unfettered sharing of information, and that unilaterally overriding all confidentiality laws is unnecessary when a more tailored approach can strike a balance between the Task Force’s goals and the privacy of every Rhode Islander. The Senate Finance committee approved the legislation without adopting the ACLU’s suggestions in June, and identical language was approved by the House and Senate as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Criminal Background Checks (varied)Mixed Results
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, and this year was no exception. 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) aimed 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.
Although H 7505 was not voted on before the end of the session, the General Assembly did approve other background check legislation, further expanding the number of professions which require background checks and, in many case, failing to include the type of protections sought in H 7505. Among others, the General Assembly approved legislation requiring background checks for firefighters (H 8037 as amended, S 2712A) and municipal recreation department employees and volunteers (H 7126, S 2104) that, the ACLU testified, conflicts with the state Fair Employment Practices Act and denies many qualifies individuals employment solely because of their long-distant criminal records. The General Assembly also approved legislation (H 7413, S 2652) requiring national background checks of nearly every employee of any long-term care facility in the state; this legislation, however, included some of the language requested by the ACLU to give individuals the opportunity to be evaluated on their own merit and not solely because of their criminal record.
Child Safe Zones (H 7764A as amended, S 2751B)PASSED
In June, the House approved legislation prohibiting any person convicted of a sex offense with a minor from holding employment in a wide range of jobs, even if that job never involved interaction with a child. In April, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee that the legislation’s (H 7754A as amended) attempt at creating so-called “child safe zones” was too broadly worded, prohibiting individuals from being employed in any capacity by third-party vendors and contractors who did business with facilities serving children, including beaches and libraries, but never involved contact with children. Under this legislation, for example, a person with a sex offense would be prohibited from working in the billing department of a produce company, if that company was contracted to provide produce to a school or children’s hospital. Further, the legislation included no grandfather clause, meaning individuals currently employed by these facilities will have to lose their jobs upon passage. Although the Senate failed to vote on their own version of the bill (S 2751B), the Senate approved the House version in June. The ACLU has requested the Governor veto this legislation.
Sex Offender Registration and Notification (H 7425)Passed House, Died in Senate
In June, the House approved legislation (H 7425) overhauling the state’s sex offender registration and community notification laws, replacing them with federal standards so costly that few states have chosen to implement them. The federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) includes draconian public notification requirements, lifetime sex offender registration even for juvenile offenders, and retroactive registration for persons whose offenses may have occurred decades earlier. ACLU volunteer attorney Katherine Godin testified that notification laws hinder rehabilitation and ignore the reality of sex offenses, which is that over 90% of them are committed against victims whom the perpetrator knows, not by strangers. Similar legislation was passed by the House last year, but died in Senate committee; this year, the bill never received a Senate committee vote.
Students Rights Bills
High Stakes Testing (H 7327, H 7672, S 2185A, S 2059A)PASSED
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. Much of this advocacy paid off in May, when the Senate passed legislation sponsored by Senator Adam Satchell (S 2059A as amended) to impose a three-year moratorium on the use of such high-stakes testing; the House followed in June with approval of companion legislation (H 8363 as amended) by Representative Gregg Amore. 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 ACLU, parent and student groups, and national education experts testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee about these issues and to support legislation sponsored by Representative Eileen Naughton (H 7672) to prohibit the use of standardized testing in evaluating a student’s eligibility to graduate. Similar legislation, sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (S 2185A), was approved by the Senate Judiciary committee in April, but recommitted just a few days later. 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 voted in May not to reconsider the requirement. Although the Governor declined to sign the legislation, he allowed it to become law without his signature. As a result, those students who were unable to graduate in 2014 solely because of the NECAP requirement will receive their diplomas
Internet Filtering (H 7828)DIED
ACLU-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Arthur Handy (H 7828) aimed 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 would have addressed 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, but the legislation did not receive a vote this year.
School Discipline (H 7581, S 2430)DIED
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 again weighed 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 required 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. Neither bill received a committee vote.
Voting Rights Bills
Election Reform (H 7503, S 2663)DIED
In April, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of comprehensive election reform legislation, sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7503) and Senator Elizabeth Crowley (S 2663). This perennial legislation proposed a number of critical amendments to current election practices, including expanding the number of provisional ballots counted and the procedures for recounts. In 2013, the ACLU testified before the House Oversight committee that a number of the issues plaguing the 2012 elections could have been ameliorated if such legislation had been enacted at the time. The legislation failed to receive a committee vote.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 7263, S 2286A)Passed Senate, Died in House
Following years of inaction, the Senate in May passed legislation, sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (S 2286A), addressing the problem of prison-based gerrymandering. 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 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 April, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of companion legislation sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 7263) to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. Unfortunately, the bill failed to receive a committee vote on the House side, and died.
Voter ID Repeal (H 7767, S 2641)DIED
As of January 1, 2014, Rhode Island now requires all voters to show a form of photo identification at the polls before they can cast their ballots. The ACLU and many other civil rights groups opposed to the voter ID law remain concerned with the severe disenfranchisement the new photo ID requirement will impose on the poor, the elderly, racial minorities and other vulnerable groups that are least likely to have identification or the documents necessary to obtain ID. In April, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of legislation, sponsored by Representative Larry Valencia (H 7767) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 2641) to repeal this onerous voter ID requirement. The ACLU and other groups further testified that, should any compromise be sought on the voter ID issue, the compromise should be a true “freeze,” accepting all documents that were considered acceptable in 2012, and not, as was proposed last year, a further restriction on the number of acceptable forms of ID. Despite promising discussions early in the year, the legislation died without a vote in both the House and Senate committees; all voters will be required to give photo voter ID at the polls this election season.
War on Drugs Bills
Medical Marijuana (H 7610A, S 2566)PASSED
The state’s medical marijuana program suffered a huge setback when, in June, the House and Senate passed Attorney General legislation (H 7610A) promoting discrimination and harassment of marijuana cardholders without cause. Patients participating in the program will now be required to obtain a cultivation certificate from the Department of Health and a municipal zoning inspection. The legislation also limits the amount of marijuana that can be cultivated at a time, and allows landlords to discriminate against cultivating cardholders by refusing to lease to them. In short, it makes participation in the program much more onerous. The ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in opposition to this legislation in April, but the bill passed the House in June. Although the Senate version of the legislation (S 2566) never made it out of committee, the Senate approved the House’s version of the bill and it now heads to the Governor’s desk. The ACLU has requested a veto.
Good Samaritan (H 7869, S 2883A as amended)Passed Senate, Died in House
While undermining the medical marijuana program, the General Assembly failed to make productive changes in the state’s “War on Drugs” by expanding the state’s Good Samaritan Act. Currently, the law protects from prosecution for certain drug-related offenses any person who calls for help in the case of a drug overdose. In May, the Senate passed legislation (S 2883A as amended) sponsored by Senator Michael McCaffrey further expanding the law to protect those who call for help during a drug overdose from prosecution for certain possession or delivery offenses, including protection from probation violations. In April, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee on companion legislation, sponsored by Representative Frank Ferri (H 7869), stating that this legislation will save the lives of drug users, and furthers a common-sense recognition of drug use as a public health issue, eliminating the concern that people who call for help to save lives may find themselves in jail as a result. Unfortunately, the House Judiciary committee failed to vote on the legislation and it died.
Workplace Rights Bills
Pregnancy Discrimination (H 7982, S 2779)Passed Senate, Died in House
Existing federal prohibitions against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace have proven ineffective in preventing women from facing serious workplace penalties because of their pregnancy or breastfeeding status. In April, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Labor committees that 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 Elaine Coderre (H 7982) and Senator Hanna Gallo (S 2779) seeks to protect Rhode Island’s pregnant workers by ending this practice. The Senate approved the legislation in June, but it failed to receive a committee vote in the House.