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.
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.
Open Government Bills
Administrative Procedures Act (H 7314)
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. Legislation sponsored by Representative Carlos Tobon (H 7314) will eliminate this exemption. A companion bill is expected in the Senate soon; similar legislation passed the full Senate in 2015.
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. Legislation sponsored by House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (H 7396) will 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.
Location Tracking (H 7167)
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) 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. 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.
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.
Students Rights Bills
Internet Filtering of School Computers (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 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. 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.
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 (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 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.
Voting Rights Bills
Comprehensive Election Reform (H 7249)
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. 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.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 7400)
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.) Legislation sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 7400) will rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. Similar legislation has passed the Senate for the last two years, but has never moved in the House.
Early Voting (H 7248)
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.
Electronic Voter Registration (H 7024)
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. In January, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Aaron Regunberg (H 7024) to allow for electronic voter registration. The legislation 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. Similar legislation passed the House in 2015 and was approved by the Senate Judiciary committee, but was not voted on by the full Senate before the close of the legislative session.
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.