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.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance
The General Assembly will again consider 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.
Criminal Justice Bills
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. ACLU-drafted legislation will again be introduced to reinstate the policy in place under the First Circuit decision, requiring 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.
Domestic Drones (H 7170)
The General Assembly will again consider legislation aimed at 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
The Affiliate will be reintroducing ACLU-drafted legislation aimed at restricting the use by law enforcement of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs), which are placed on police cameras and used to scan and record the license plate of every vehicle on the road. 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. Similar legislation failed to move out of the House Judiciary committee last year.
Cell Phone Location Tracking (H 7190, S 2221)
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 2221) 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)
Back for a third time is an ACLU-drafted bill, sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7189) 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.
Employer and School Access to Social Media Accounts (H 7124, 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) 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. The legislation passed the House last year and was voted out of the Senate Judiciary committee, but was never brought to the Senate floor for a vote.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Criminal Background Checks
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 drafted by the ACLU will be reintroduced this year 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
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.
The General Assembly will again consider legislation relating to the use of Internet filtering software 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. ACLU-drafted legislation will again try to 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. Similar legislation was heard, but never voted on, last year.
Statewide, students are routinely suspended from school for small infractions that pose no risk or serious distraction to their peers, even though that makes them far more likely than their peers to drop out of school and to end up in the criminal justice system. Minority students are far more likely to suffer suspensions, leading to a disproportionate number of minority youth pushed along the “school-to-prison pipeline.” To address this serious disparity, the General Assembly will again consider ACLU-sponsored legislation requiring 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.
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. The General Assembly will again consider legislation to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address.