2013 Legislative Session
In any legislative session, the ACLU of RI monitors hundreds of bills under consideration by the General Assembly. Below are just some of the bills the ACLU of Rhode Island is weighing in on this year; this list is by no means exhaustive, and will be updated as new bills come up and new events take place.In any legislative session, the ACLU of RI monitors hundreds of bills under consideration by the General Assembly. Below are just some of the bills the ACLU of Rhode Island is weighing in on this year; this list is by no means exhaustive, and will be updated as new bills come up and new events take place. We've also posted information about bills that may not be gathering a lot of public attention, but that could have serious civil-liberties implications.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance (H 5243, S 0201)
In February, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Corporations committee in favor of legislation (H 5243) barring health insurance companies from using gender as a factor in premiums. A similar hearing followed in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee (S 0201) in March. Nationwide, women are charged more for the same health insurance as men, solely because of their gender; as a result, women are disproportionately less able to purchase vital health care coverage. While this practice will be illegal under federal law beginning in 2014, ACLU of RI-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Donna Walsh and Senator Susan Sosnowski aims to eliminate the practice immediately in Rhode Island. The Senate passed this legislation in May, but it still awaits movement in the House. A similar bill died in committee last year.
Marriage Equality (H 5015, S 0038)
On May 2, Governor Chafee signed long-overdue legislation establishing full marriage equality in Rhode Island. In 1997, then-Representative Michael Pisaturo first introduced marriage equality legislation. Undaunted by the General Assembly’s failure to adopt equality even while offering less equal solutions such as domestic partnerships in 2002 and civil unions in 2011, the ACLU and other advocates pursued the legislation for the seventeen legislative sessions. Sponsored for a decade by Representative Art Handy, and this year by Senator Donna Nesselbush, who took over after then-Senator Rhoda Perry’s retirement in 2012 after sponsoring the legislation for twelve years, the law (H 5015A, S 0038A) now grants full marriage rights to all couples, regardless of their gender, who are otherwise eligible to marry. The law also codifies Rhode Island’s recognition of marriages and civil unions from other states, and includes protections for those religious institutions that choose not to solemnize same-sex marriages. Read our final marriage equality testimony before the House Judiciary committee.
Sex Discrimination (S 0012)
In response to last year’s controversy over father-daughter dances, the General Assembly is considering legislation to weaken the state’s school sex discrimination laws to allow for single-sex activities if a comparable activity exists for the other sex. In March, the ACLU testified before the Senate Education Committee (S 0012) that these single-sex activities are generally not comparable, and thereby in violation of the federal law this legislation attempts to mirror. Title IX has been the law for forty years, and any amendments to the state’s anti-discrimination laws must be making steps forward, not backward. Further, it is the responsibility of schools to be inclusive of all families and children, and not to revert to regressive gender segregation. Unfortunately, the Senate passed this legislation in April. A hearing has yet to be scheduled in the House. Read our letter to the Cranston School Department.
Criminal Justice Bills
Strip Searches (H 5382, S 0466)
In 2002, the First Circuit court ruled unconstitutional arbitrary strip searches of detainees. For ten years, strip searches were only permitted in certain circumstances. In 2012, a distressing decision by the US Supreme Court overruled the First Circuit’s decision, opening the door for the Department of Corrections to conduct intrusive, humiliating, and unnecessary searches on any detainee in their custody, including those on pre-trial detention for misdemeanors and non-violent crimes who are not suspected of carrying contraband. In March, the ACLU of RI testified in support of legislation by Senator Gayle Goldin (S 0466) and Representative Donna Walsh (H 5382) to reinstate the policy in place under the First Circuit decision. The bill requires law enforcement to have reasonable suspicion prior to performing a strip search, and a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a body cavity search. Read our 2012 letter to the Department of Corrections.
DNA Testing of Arrestees (H 5205, S 0041)
The General Assembly is again considering legislation allowing for the collection of DNA from any person arrested for a crime of violence or any felony, which can include some banking violations (H 5205, S 0041). Under current law, DNA can only be collected from individuals convicted of certain felonies; to collect from individuals who have merely been arrested for a crime is a contradiction of the presumption of innocence and a dangerous step toward the creation of a comprehensive DNA database. Additionally, collecting DNA from every individual arrested for a crime of violence would place a significant burden on the Department of Health, exacerbating the existing testing backlog and delaying justice in those cases where DNA is a critical investigatory element. The ACLU of RI testified in opposition to this bill before the Senate Judiciary committee in February, the Senate approved the legislation in June. The House version of the bill is currently held for further study in the House Judiciary Committee. Read our written testimony here.
Computer Crimes (H 5570, S 0550)
The General Assembly is also considering legislation to drastically overhaul Rhode Island’s computer crimes laws, altering the definitions of old laws and creating new offenses. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees that the legislation’s broad language means even some actions clearly protected by the First Amendment, such as commenting online on controversial topics or running a satirical website, could be deemed illegal under state law. (H 5570, S 0550)
In response to the tragic events of Sandy Hook, the General Assembly leadership introduced a package of gun control legislation that included bills dealing with the alteration of firearm serial numbers, a behavioral health and firearms safety task force, background checks, revisions to the weapons law penalties, relief from disqualifiers, stolen firearms, a statewide gun registry, and gun permit applications (H 5286, H 5992, H 5993, H 5994, H 5991, H 5573, H 5688, S 0455, S 0862, S 0865, S 0864, S 0860). The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in April and the House Judiciary committee in May that, despite the good intentions of this package, the legislation carries a number of alarming provisions. Among others, the legislation implements troublesome mandatory minimum sentences, provisions that could entrap innocent gun owners, and a lack of meaningful due process for gun permit applicants. In addition, the legislation focused on identifying and recording individuals with mental illnesses or substance abuse issues, a proposal that could carry a number of serious unintended consequences. Read our written testimony here.
Due Process Bills
Casinos (H 6221, S 979)
With table games legalized in Rhode Island, the General Assembly has fast-tracked legislation overhauling the casino gaming statute and adding a number of new crimes, penalties, and regulations. In June, the ACLU testified before the Senate and House Judiciary committees that the bill carried a number of provisions that seriously impact the due process rights of patrons, including a provision allowing casino employees to detain and question a patron suspected of violating gaming laws – essentially granting these employees police powers with immunity for their actions, but without limitation on those actions. The legislation further imposes penalties of up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $100,000 for violating any broadly-worded gambling laws, including one barring the possession of tape, dental floss or other items that could be used for cheating. Read our written testimony here.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Citizens United (H 6051)
In May, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary Committee in opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment responding the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision. The legislation seeks to strip corporations of any rights under the Constitution, limit the use of contributions and expenditures including requiring public disclosure of these contributions and expenditures, and bar the consideration of money as speech. The ACLU testified that this unconstitutional legislation would have serious unintended consequences, including making it nearly impossible for anyone but an incumbent to be elected in to office. Read our written comments here. (H 6051)
Immigrants' Rights Bills
E-Verify (H 5106, H 5236, H 5258, S 0148)
The ACLU of RI testified in February before the House Labor committee in opposition to a bill making E-Verify use mandatory by Rhode Island employers, and in favor of a bill keeping the E-Verify program voluntary (H 5106, H 5236, H 5258, S 0148). The ACLU of RI testified that E-Verify continues to be an error-prone system which 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. Legislation mandating the use of E-Verify passed the House in 2009. Read our testimony here.
Open Government Bills
School Safety Access to Public Records (H 5940, H 5941, S 0800, S 0801)
Also in response to the events in Newtown, the General Assembly is weighing legislation overhauling the consideration and adoption of school safety plans. Included in this legislation is a provision exempting all school safety documents from release under the Access to Public Records Act. The ACLU testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in April that this dangerous exemption would leave parents in the dark about what schools were doing to protect their children, reversing a decade of transparency that began in the wake of the Columbine shootings. As a result, schools would be more likely to adopt flawed school safety plans, and parents would be left unable to answer important questions, including what safety measures were being taken, and how parents would be notified in the event of a disaster. The House passed this legislation in April (H 5940, H 5941), with the Senate following suit in May (S 800, S 801). Read our written testimony here.
Cell Phone Warrants (H 5180, S 0291)
The ACLU of RI also testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in February and the House Judiciary committee in March in support of legislation barring law enforcement from searching the contents of a cell phone without first obtaining a warrant (H 5180, S 0291). As cell phone technology has advanced, the devices we carry on a daily basis have begun to carry substantial amounts of personal information, including e-mails, photos, and records of where we have traveled, while presenting no immediate danger to law enforcement. Although it is a law enforcement best practice to seek a warrant prior to search of a cell phone, no requirement exists in law. The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed this legislation, sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello and Senator Donna Nesselbush last year; although there was no opposition to the bill, Governor Chafee vetoed the legislation unexpectedly. The ACLU of RI is working hard to ensure the bill’s passage – and signing – this year.
Social Media Passwords (H 5255, S 0493)
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 of RI-drafted legislation (H 5255, S 0493), sponsored by Representative Brian Kennedy and Senator Dominick Ruggerio, 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, requiring users to access social media in the presence of employers or school officials, or requiring students, employees or applicants to add employers or school officials to their list of contacts. The House approved this legislation in June; a Senate committee has also approved this legislation, and a Senate floor vote is expected soon. You can read our testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee here.
Automated License Plate Readers (H 5150, H 5533, H 5825, S 0046)
In February, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Corporations committee in opposition to two bills sanctioning the use of automated license plate readers, which are scanners placed on police cruisers and used to scan every license plate on the street. Proposed as a way to detect and ticket uninsured motorists, automated license plate readers (ALPRs) have the capacity to track the GPS location of every car on the road, even at high rates of speed and over several lanes of traffic, and transmit your 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 remain largely unregulated. The ACLU also provided testimony in opposition to similar Senate legislation (S 0046) in May. In March, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee on ACLU-drafted legislation (H 5825), sponsored by Representative Larry Valencia, that seeks to place limits on what information can be captured and accessed. Read our testimony in opposition to ALPRs (H 5150, H 5533, S 0046) here.
Nursing Home Monitors (H 5251)
In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare in opposition to legislation allowing for video and audio monitoring of nursing homes, including the bedrooms and bathrooms of residents. While all facilities should be safe for residents, the ACLU testified that this intrusive monitoring all but eliminated the privacy rights of patients, and told those who opted out that they would have to choose between their safety and their privacy instead of finding an appropriate balance between the two.
Drones (H 5780, S 0411)
The General Assembly is considering a pair of bills aimed at restricting the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by law enforcement. Although the technology is not used in Rhode Island yet, increasing interest by law enforcement nationwide indicates drones are on their way. Currently, state law lacks the privacy protections critical before drones can be used. In April, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee on ACLU-drafted legislation, sponsored by Representative Teresa Tanzi, that seeks to implement those protections, including requiring a warrant before a drone can be used for surveillance. Read our testimony here. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the Senate Judiciary committee of a similar bill, sponsored by Senator Nick Kettle. (H 5780, S 0411)
Racial Profiling Bills
Racial Profiling (H 5285, S 0145)
For the seventh year, the ACLU of RI is part of a diverse coalition of organizations advocating for passage of the Comprehensive Racial Profiling Prevention Act (H 5285, S 0145). Three years’ of traffic stop data have demonstrated consistently that black and Hispanic drivers are twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped by police and searched, while white drivers are more likely to be found with contraband when searched. Sponsored this year by Representative Joseph Almeida and Senator Harold Metts, the bill bars law enforcement from demanding identification from passengers, limits searches of minors and pedestrians absent suspicion of criminal activity, requires police to document the grounds for conducting searches, and reestablishes traffic stop data collection procedures. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in April and May, respectively.
Mandatory Seat Belts
In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law making failure to wear a seat belt a primary traffic offense, meaning that any individual could be pulled over by law enforcement solely for failing to wear a seat belt. The ACLU and other community groups testified that this legislation would give law enforcement another tool to pull over, interrogate, and potentially search drivers who have otherwise done nothing wrong. As this is disproportionately the case for minority drivers in Rhode Island, advocates argued that comprehensive anti-racial profiling legislation must be passed in order to ensure minority drivers would not be stopped and searched even more often. As compromise, the General Assembly included a provision in the legislation automatically repealing the seat belt law after two years. With that deadline approaching, the General Assembly is weighing legislation (H 5140, S 0352) to make the seat belt law permanent. In April, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees that racial profiling remains a real problem and the seat belt law should be allowed to expire until racial profiling is addressed. Unfortunately, the House approved the legislation in May. It awaits further consideration in the Senate.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Ban the Box (H 5507, S 0357)
On February 13, the ACLU of RI attended a press conference in support of “Ban the Box” legislation, sponsored by Representative Scott Slater and Senator Harold Metts. Employment is a pivotal factor in preventing recidivism, but well-qualified applicants with criminal records – even bearing long-distant infractions irrelevant to the job for which they are applying – are often excluded from consideration before even having an interview, solely because they honestly answer the question “Have you been convicted of a crime?” This legislation removes that question from the initial application, giving applicants a chance to be interviewed before an employer may ask about a criminal record history and thereby an opportunity for employers to see an applicant’s qualifications and not solely their mistakes. The ACLU of RI testified in support of this legislation before the House Labor committee in March, and before the Senate Labor committee in May. (H 5507, S 0357)
Criminal Background Checks
The General Assembly this year will likely continue their trend of imposing criminal background checks on applicants for a number of employment and volunteer positions including taxicab companies (H 5355), school volunteers (H 5537, S 0144), long-term care facilities (H 5539, S 0458), and any business that offers any services to children (H 5678), among others. (H 5276, S 0332, S 0347, S 0468). The ACLU of RI in February testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee on a bill (H 5229) amending legislation requiring such background checks for school mentors; the broadly-worded legislation resulted in disqualification of some school mentors in Warwick, derailing students’ senior projects just before the end of the school year. Unfortunately, the House passed the bill in March. Such broad and confusing background check legislation has become the norm; legislation drafted by the ACLU of RI and introduced by Representative Edith Ajello seeks to make uniform background check requirements. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the House Judiciary committee in April.
Students Rights Bills
High Stakes Testing (H 5277, S 0117)
The ACLU of RI is again working with student and education groups to stop high-stakes testing from keeping otherwise qualified students from graduating. In 2014, Rhode Island is scheduled to begin using standardized testing as a zero-sum graduation requirement. Civil rights and advocacy groups have noted such a test would prevent approximately 90% or more of special education, limited English proficient, economically disadvantaged, Latino or African-American students from graduation. Sponsored by Representative Eileen Naughton and Senator Harold Metts, this legislation does not bar the use of standardized testing, but requires such tests be used only for their intended purpose of identifying struggling students and districts in order to provide intervention. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee (H 5277) in February, and before the Senate Education in April (S 0117). In June, the ACLU and other groups testified before the Senate Education committee in opposition to a bill (S 968) that was ostensibly put forward to address some of the concerns that have been raised about high-stakes testing, but that in fact only codifies existing testing provisions in to law. Read our letter to the committee in opposition to this legislation here. Try your hand at the NECAP with some of the test’s math questions here, and read our written testimony opposing high-stakes testing here.
Pay to Play (H 5138, S 0112)
The ACLU of RI testified in February before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in opposition to legislation (H 5138) allowing school committees to charge fees to those students participating in extracurricular activities. A hearing before the Senate Education committee followed in March (S 0112). The ACLU of RI testified that so-called “Pay to Play” programs infringe on the value of a free and fair education, and that fee waivers provide no protection for students who are unable to pay the fees levied for extracurricular programs. Read our testimony.
School Discipline (H 5754, S 0509)
In June, the ACLU released a report documenting the rampant – and racially disparate – use of out-of-school suspensions across Rhode Island. Statewide, students are routinely suspended from school for small infractions that pose no risk or serious distraction to their peers. Although students who are suspended from school are far more likely than their peers to drop out of school and to end up as part of the criminal justice system, Rhode Island’s schools continue to rely on this troublesome punishment in favor of behavior controls. Minority students are far more likely to suffer suspensions, leading to a disproportionate number of minority youth pushed along the “school-to-prison pipeline.” ACLU-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Teresa Tanzi (H 5754) and Senator Maryellen Goodwin (S 0509) attempts to limit the use of suspensions by requiring suspensions to be served in-school unless the student poses a physical risk or serious distraction to other students. Further, the legislation requires school districts to examine their discipline data and come up with plans to mitigate any disproportionate suspension rates that may exist. The ACLU of RI testified in support of this legislation before the Senate Education committee in March and the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in April.
Armed Campus Police (H 5279, H 6005)
In April, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee on perennial legislation to overrule state education officials and mandate the carrying of guns by campus police officers. The ACLU testified that, despite well-known tragic events, gun violence remains rare on college campuses but the introduction of weapons does result in an increased frequency of accidental discharges that put student safety at risk. The ACLU testified that current state law allows for the introduction of weapons if the state board governing higher education sees fit, and that they have not yet done so indicates armed guards may not be the right choice for all institutions. In May, the Rhode Island Board of Higher Education voted to allow colleges and universities to arm their police officers if they choose. Read our April testimony here and our May testimony here.
Internet Filtering (H 5652)
In March, the ACLU released a report documenting the problematic use of Internet filters on school computers. Across Rhode Island, school districts are blocking from students vastly more information than was intended by the federal law requiring their use, leaving students unable to complete their assignments and teachers scrambling to change their lesson plans at the very last moment. Legislation introduced by Representative Arthur Handy seeks to address this issue by requiring that school districts maintain a detailed written policy regarding the use of their filter, permit teachers to have websites unblocked in an expedient fashion, and reevaluate requests for unblocking annually to determine if any filter changes should be made. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in April.
Voting Rights Bills
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 5283, S 0147)
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 counted as living at the ACI – even individuals there for a few days on pre-trial detention, those serving short sentences, and those who will be incarcerated for several years. Many of these prisoners are not residents of Cranston and cannot vote in Cranston after their release, yet the districts are drawn as if they could; as such, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. Under the redistricting plan adopted last year, 15 percent of House District 20 is comprised of voters who likely cannot vote in Cranston. Legislation introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 5283) and Senator Harold Metts (S 0147) seeks to restore representation in Rhode Island to “one person, one vote” by requiring that, for the purposes of redistricting, prisoners are identified as living at their last known address. The ACLU of RI testified in support of this legislation before the Senate and House Judiciary committees in February and March; read our testimony in support of this legislation here, and testimony from the Prison Policy Initiative here.
Following the flurry of election-related legislation passed by the General Assembly over the last two years, it was unsurprising that the elections of 2012 were riddled with problems. The ACLU of RI testified before the House Oversight committee in February about the difficulties voters faced, and the necessary solutions. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of ACLU-drafted election reform legislation (H 5660) that addresses many of the concerns raised in House Oversight. This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Edie Ajello with a Senate version (S 0421) sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Crowley, makes a number of critical changes to the state’s election laws, including expanding the number of provisional ballots counted and clarifying the rights of poll monitors on Election Day. Read our testimony before the Oversight committee here and our election reform testimony here.
Voter ID Repeal (H 5776, S 0359)
The ACLU of RI testified before the Senate and House Judiciary committees in February and March, respectively, in support of legislation repealing the state’s voter ID law. Voter ID was passed over the opposition of a number of community advocacy and open government groups who expressed concern that voter ID would impact the right to vote for those individuals least likely to have identification or the documents necessary to obtain ID, including the elderly, minorities, students, and the disabled. With difficulties faced by voters during the 2012 elections when the non-photo ID requirement went in to effect, the ACLU supports efforts by Representative Larry Valencia and Senator Gayle Goldin to repeal the law before the photo ID requirement begins in 2014. (H 5776, S 0359).
War on Drugs Bills
Marijuana Regulation and Taxation (H 5274, S 0334)
The General Assembly this year is considering a bill to legalize the production of marijuana for recreational purposes by adults (H 5274, S 0334). Sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello and Senator Donna Nesselbush, the bill would allow the state of Rhode Island to produce and sell marijuana for recreational consumption, ensuring the state can set specific and enforceable limits on who can access marijuana and funneling money from the sale of marijuana to substance abuse treatment programs. The ACLU of RI testified before the House Judiciary Committee in February and the Senate Judiciary committee in May regarding the significant erosion of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure, which has been the product of the 40-year failed “War on Drugs.”
Marijuana Discrimination by Landlords (H 5437)
In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in opposition to a bill permitting landlords to refuse to rent to individuals based solely on their cultivation of medical marijuana. Landlords have the right to take recourse against those individuals who are violating the terms of their lease or threatening the health or safety of other tenants, but the ACLU testified that retribution against tenants solely because of their participation in a legal activity raises a number of privacy and discrimination concerns.
Prescription Monitoring Program (H 5756, 0647)
In order to combat illicit prescription drug use, Rhode Island maintains a prescription monitoring database that records the information of any individual prescribed a medication that falls under certain sections of the Uniformed Controlled Substances Act. Currently, the information contained within that database and who may access that information is largely unregulated by Rhode Island law. In March and April, the ACLU testified before he House Health, Education and Welfare and Senate Health and Human Services Committee in support of legislation that would impose those necessary limitations. Sponsored by Representative Joseph McNamara and Senator Donna Nesselbush, the legislation was originally intended solely to expand the number of medications within this database and permit the use of e-prescribing by doctors. After the ACLU raised concerns last year, the legislation was amended to include strong privacy protections to ensure the information of responsible patients remains uncompromised. The House and Senate each approved this legislation in May. Read our testimony here.