Legislative Issue 2015 - an ACLU of Rhode Island Newsletter

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Legislative Issue 2015 Newsletter

Volume: XXI, Issue Number: 4

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Newsletter Contents

Despite Promising Start, 2015 Legislative Session Leaves Important Measures On The Table

As the 2015 legislative session wound down, a number of pro-civil liberties bills were primed for passage and many anti-civil liberties bills were failing to move at all. In any legislative year, however, a great deal can happen in the closing days, and this session was no exception. A sudden collapse in negotiations between the House and Senate over a series of seemingly minor bills meant that a number of other bills slated for passage suddenly died in the last moments of the session when legislative leaders abruptly adjourned.

Perhaps the most frustrating examples of this were the death of a few good bills that both chambers agreed were worthy of passage. Because the House has to approve a Senate bill and the Senate has to approve a House bill before it can become law, some bills already approved by their respective chamber were stopped on their way to approval by the other simply because the clock ran out.

Important bills on their way to approval when they died include an extension and expansion of the life-saving Good Samaritan Act and ACLU-drafted bills to curb school suspensions and establish clear policies for school use of Internet filters.

Unfortunately, a few pieces of troubling legislation did become law. Despite staunch opposition from the ACLU, Rhode Island passed its first anti-abortion legislation in 15 years. Ironically, the restriction was introduced by pro-choice Governor Gina Raimondo. The General Assembly also passed two bills that undermine the rehabilitation of offenders, and the ACLU was unsuccessful in persuading the Governor to veto either of them.

This is not to say there were no successes for civil liberties this year. Some important non-discrimination measures became law this session. They include legislation strengthening the laws against pregnancy discrimination and two anti-discrimination bills that protect children in DCYF custody and military veterans. After years-long efforts, a bill to address some aspects of racial profiling and protect juveniles from unnecessary police searches also became law. And the Affiliate also continued its work to establish important privacy protections for the 21st century, protect due process rights, and reform police practices.

These bills, detailed inside, are just a small sampling of the hundreds of bills the ACLU weighed in on this year. As for the positive measures that died in the closing minutes of the session, the Affiliate will be back in full force next year pushing for their passage. You can find additional information and testimony on these and other bills here.


From the Desk of the Executive Director

Chicken coops. Yes, it’s true that a disagreement between House and Senate leadership over a bill dealing with chicken coops was a major factor in the abrupt ending of this year’s legislative session, leaving lit-erally dozens of bills hanging on the House and Senate floor calendars waiting to be voted on.

As unfortunate as that was, we think we are in good shape to get some important measures enacted next year, and in no small part thanks to you, our members. In particular, I was extremely pleased to see both Houses, on the last night of the session, each pass versions of a bill we have been strongly promoting to limit the use of out-of-school suspensions for minor disciplinary infractions.

The bill had been bottled up in committee to our great frustration. But through the enormous efforts of policy associate Hillary Davis, coordinating daily lobbying from other organiza-tions and from our members, we were able to wrench the bills out of committee on what turned out to be the last day of the session. It was deeply sad-dening to see the bills left hanging on the floor calendars, but I am confident that your support has primed the bills for passage next year. It is an ex-ample of how you can help make a difference, and I am grateful for that support.

 -- Steven Brown


Civil Liberties in the 2015 Legislative Session

Non-Discrimination

Ban Military Status Housing Discrimination (H 5593, S 0241 A) PASSED
Following supportive testimony by the ACLU and other advocates, the General Assembly passed, and the Governor signed, legislation prohibiting housing discrimination on the basis of military status. Veterans have recently begun reporting facing such discrimination, and the law left them with no recourse. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Walter Felag and Representative Jan Malik, bars such discrimination against any service member in the Armed Forces or veteran with an honorable or general administrative discharge.

DCYF Non-Discrimination (H 5586, S 0126) PASSED
Important legislation ensuring children in the care of the Department of Children, Youth and Families are free from discrimination is now law. Sponsored by Representative Grace Diaz and Senator Gayle Goldin, this legislation explicitly states that children in DCYF care shall not be dis-criminated against because of their race, religion, ancestry, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, and other factors. The ACLU testified in strong support of this legislation.

Racial Profiling

Racial Profiling Prevention (H 5819A, S 0669A) PASSED
Legislation sponsored by Senator Harold Metts and Representative Jo-seph Almeida prohibiting police from searching juveniles and pedestrians without probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity be-came law this year.  For the past several years, the ACLU and other groups have worked to raise awareness of, and reduce the incidence of, racial pro-filing in the state, noting that black and Hispanic drivers in Rhode Island are consistently more likely than white drivers to be stopped by police and searched, even though white drivers are more likely to be found with contraband. Young people in particular have been subjected to harassing police stops and searches while walking in their neighborhoods. Passage of this legislation will help protect youth of color from being searched by police without cause.

Abortion

Health Insurance Abortion Coverage (H 5900A as amended, Article 18) PASSED
In a significant civil liberties loss, passage of Article 18 of the state’s budg-et, proposed by pro-choice Governor Gina Raimondo, amounted to a sig-nificant setback for abortion rights. The Article codifies into law the state’s health insurance exchange, which had been set up by executive or-der. However, going far beyond what is required under the federal Afford-able Care Act, the Article also mandates a number of health plans be made available on the exchange that do not cover abortion services, and also al-lows employers to choose the level of reproductive care coverage their employees will receive. Disturbingly, the Article’s passage represents the first anti-abortion legislation enacted in Rhode Island in over 15 years.

Free Speech

Computer Crime Bills (Various) DIED
Although the Senate approved two of them, the House took no action on a trio of Attorney General computer crimes bills that the ACLU argued would severely infringe on First Amendment rights. A “cyberharassment” bill would have punished anyone who posted something that caused a person “to be repeatedly contacted by others” in a manner that “seriously bother[ed]” them. A second troubling bill, purportedly designed to address the problem of “revenge porn,” would have made criminals of bloggers who posted some of the disturbing images from Abu Ghraib. A third bill, dealing with unauthor-ized computer access, would have imposed the same punishment on a hacker who stole proprietary infor-mation, a whistleblower releasing information about her employer’s illegal activities, and a person who guessed a password and read her spouse’s private emails. Fortunately, all three bills died.

Obstructing Traffic (H 5192, H 5193, S 0129) DIED
In February, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in opposition to legislation creating a new felony crime of obstructing a freeway, prompted by a Ferguson-inspired protest last September. The ACLU testified that imposing felony penalties was unduly harsh since individuals engaged in such conduct could already be charged with misdemeanor “disorderly conduct.”Obstructing Traffic

The Affiliate expressed particular concern that the creation of new crimes targeted at individuals engag-ing in political speech had troubling First Amend-ment implications. The ACLU further testified that the legislation’s broad wording could result in it be-ing used to target homeless individuals engaging in panhandling. The bills were not voted on before the end of the legislative session.

Women’s Rights

Pregnancy Discrimination (H 5674A as amended, S 0276A as amended) PASSED
Federal prohibitions against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace have proven ineffective in preventing women from facing serious workplace penalties because of their pregnancy. Court decisions have left uncer-tainties in the law, permitting employers to deny pregnant women reasonable accommodations, such as carry-ing a bottle of water on the job, even as they permit such accommodations for disabled workers. As a result, pregnant women must weigh their health and the safety of their pregnancy against their need to work. ACLU-supported legislation sponsored by Rep. Shelby Maldonado and Sen. Hanna Gallo and signed by the Governor now better protects Rhode Island workers by strengthening the state’s ban on pregnancy discrimination.

Gender Rating in Health Insurance (H 5754, S 0318) Passed Senate, Died in House
Nationwide, women have historically been charged more for the same health insurance as men, solely because of their gender, leaving some women less able to purchase vital health care coverage. This practice, known as gender rating, 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. Legislation sponsored by Representative Katherine Kazarian and Senator Susan Sosnowski sought to eliminate those loopholes and ensure that gender rating would be banned in Rhode Island. The Senate approved this legislation, as it has for the past several years, but the House once again failed to act on it. The ACLU will be promoting its passage once again in 2016.

Equal Pay (H 6180, S 0721A as amended) Passed Senate, Died in House
The legislature considered a bill designed to address the well-known wage disparity between the sexes. Despite laws to the contrary, women nationwide are said to generally earn just 77% of the wages earned by men, with that percentage dropping significantly for women of color. Legislation sponsored by Representative Joy Hearn and Senator Gayle Goldin sought to address the issue in Rhode Island by making it easier for individuals facing wage differentials to file a civil action against their employer, and requiring the employer to demonstrate a gender-neutral reason for a challenged wage gap. The Senate passed the legislation, but the House failed to move on the bill, and the legislation died.

“War On Drugs”

Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention (H 5416A, S 0576A)Passed by House and Senate; Not Approved by Opposite Chamber
Possibly the worst result of the legislative session was the expiration of the state’s life-saving Good Samari-tan Overdose Prevention Act. When the law was first implemented in 2013, a two-year sunset provision was added; the law had to be reauthorized this year to remain on the books. To help ensure that people do not hesitate calling 911 in the case of an emergency out of fear of jail time, the law prohibited police from arresting for certain drug crimes those who call for help in the case of a drug overdose. However, it did not prevent a person’s probation or parole from being violated, leaving those individuals vulnerable to a return to jail if they call for help. The Senate passed legislation sponsored by Senator Michael McCaffrey expanding the law to protect individuals on probation or parole from punishment when they seek help in the case of an overdose. The bill also increased the number of drug crimes from which immunity would be provided, and extended the sunset clause for another two years. However, the House approved legislation by Representative Robert Craven that removed all the increased protections of the Senate bill, and instead only extended the sunset provision. 

The ACLU and other advocates called on the House to save lives and approve the Senate version of the legis-lation, and negotiations continued until the very last moments of the session. When the General Assembly abruptly adjourned, however, both pieces of legislation were left unaddressed on the calendar. As a result, not only did the expanded protections fail to get enacted, but the entire Good Samaritan Overdose Preven-tion Act was repealed on July 1. The ACLU and advocacy groups are working to encourage quick passage of the Senate legislation if, as appears likely, the House reconvenes in the fall.

Medical Marijuana for PTSD (H 5766A, S 0475B) Passed by House and Senate; Not Approved by Opposite Chamber
Individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – particularly veterans – have found that marijuana use helps ease symptoms and allow for relief. Yet, in Rhode Island, PTSD is not one of the speci-fied qualifying conditions to obtain and use medical marijuana. Legislation by Representative Scott Slater and Senator Stephen Archambault sought to add PTSD to that list. While each bill was passed by their re-spective chambers, neither one was approved by the opposite chamber before the session’s end.

Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana (H 5777, S 0510) DIED
The ACLU testified in support of legislation by Representative Scott Slater and Senator Josh Miller  to legal-ize, regulate, and tax marijuana use by adults. The “War on Drugs” has resulted in an astronomical number of individuals in jail instead of treatment, and a disproportionate arrest rate for black individuals even though black and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate. Current prohibition practices have resulted in overcrowded prisons, not the reduction of drug use or exposure of children to drugs. This legislation, based on recently-enacted laws in a few other states, emphasized drug treatment over incarceration and would curtail the disproportionate drug criminalizing of black and Hispanic users. Neither bill received a committee vote.

Juvenile Marijuana Use (H 6004, S 0584A) Passed Senate, Died in House
When Rhode Island decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana just two years ago, it did so in part to keep youth out of jail for minor marijuana use. Yet, legislation considered this year sought to undo that progress and put juveniles back in front of a judge. The ACLU testified that placing juveniles with mari-juana citations back in the Family Court would allow judges to place youth in the Training School if they did not – or could not – abide by any requirement the judge placed on them. Once a child enters the Family Court system, it can be very difficult for them to break out, and youth who are placed in the Training School for minor offenses face much riskier futures. The Senate approved a version of this harmful legislation, spon-sored by the Attorney General, but it was not voted on by the House and died.

Criminal Justice

Ban Juvenile Life Without Parole (H 5650, S 0389) DIED
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court banned states from imposing on juvenile offenders a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. However, states retain the discretion to impose the penalty on a case-by-case basis. Legislation introduced by Representative Christopher Blazejewski and Senator Gayle Goldin sought to make that penalty off-limits for juvenile defendants in Rhode Island. As of June 2015, 14 states have eliminated life-without-parole sentences for youth. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” and juveniles who commit their crimes should not be treated as being forever incapable of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, nei-ther bill moved in committee this year. Working with a national group known as the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, the ACLU hopes for a more positive response to the legislation next year, which most other New England states have adopted.

Threats Against Schools (H 5068A) Passed by House, Died in Senate
The ACLU testified in opposition to legislation making the use of a computer, phone, or similar device to make threats against a school or day care facility a felony. Such legislation is unnecessary, as making threats is already a crime, and the bill’s penalties would almost certainly have been disproportionately levied against young, immature students with no intention of following through on alleged “threatening” state-ments. The legislation was also so broadly worded it could have criminalized such benign activity as com-plaining about deficiencies in a school’s safety plan. The bill’s penalties were reduced before the legislation passed the House, but many of the ACLU’s concerns remained unaddressed. The bill died in the Senate Ju-diciary committee.

Restrict Parole for Individuals Convicted of Murder (H 5158A, S 0132A) PASSED
Ignoring opposition from the ACLU and the Public Defender, and failing to even put together a fiscal impact statement, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring that individuals convicted of first or second degree murder serve at least fifty percent (instead of one-third) of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Such legislation undermines the rehabilitative goals of prison, keeping some individuals incarcerated without any evidence that refusing them an opportunity to come before the parole board and demonstrate their ability to reintegrate into society provides any increased public safety benefit. Further, at a cost of over $40,000 per person per year of incarceration, this legislation will place a tremendous financial burden on the taxpayers with no resulting benefit. The ACLU sought a veto of this legislation by Governor Raimondo, who recently established a “justice reinvestment commission” designed to take an evidence-based approach to criminal justice reform, but she allowed the bill to become law.

Sex Offender Residency (H 6025, S 0754A) PASSED
The ACLU opposed legislation extending from 300 to 1,000 feet the distance certain sex offenders must re-side from a school. Sex offender residency restrictions are widely recognized by law enforcement officials and professionals involved in the treatment of sex offenders to be ineffective and counter-productive. Such restrictions ignore the reality of sex offenses – that approximately 90% of child sexual assaults are commit-ted not by strangers, but by family, friends and acquaintances known to the victim. Instead, residency re-strictions make it more difficult for offenders to reintegrate themselves into the community, likely increas-ing, rather than decreasing, their risk of re-offending. Residency restrictions also mean sex offenders are more likely to experience homelessness, making it more difficult for law enforcement to be aware of their location in the first place. The ACLU and homeless advocacy groups requested a veto, but the Governor signed the bill into law.

Students Rights

Restrictions on School Suspensions (H 5383, S 0299A)Passed by Senate and House; Not Approved by Opposite Chamber
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 that the tremendous overuse of suspensions in Rhode Island’s schools leaves students of color and students with disabilities disproportionately affected, particularly for minor subjective offenses such as “disrespect” or “disorderly conduct.” The ACLU supported legislation by Representative John Lombardi and Senator Juan Pichardo requiring suspensions to 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 annu-ally and come up with plans to mitigate any disproportionate suspension rates. Both chambers passed ver-sions of the legislation, but the bills failed to be approved by the other in time and the bills died.

School Choice (H 5790, S 0607) DIED
The ACLU opposed legislation sending state money to parochial schools through a “school choice” program. As public schools face ongoing budget cuts and the elimination of vital programs, such “choice” schemes serve only to starve public schools of even more critical funding. The result is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Neither bill was voted on in committee.

Internet Filtering of School Computers (H 5581A, S 0460A) Passed by Senate and House; Not Approved by Opposite Chamber
ACLU of Rhode Island reports have documented how, statewide, Internet filters used by school districts on their computers block considerable amounts of public information, often derailing lessons and hindering the ability of students to complete homework. The House and Senate approved ACLU-supported legislation by Representative Arthur Handy and Senator Adam Satchell requiring schools to maintain a detailed written policy regarding the use of their filters, expressly permitting teachers to have websites unblocked in an expedient fashion, and requiring districts to re-evaluate requests for unblocking annually to determine if any changes to the filter must be made. Although both chambers approved versions of the bill, final votes were not taken before the legislative session ended and the bills died.

School Computer Privacy (S 0402) DIED
As technology becomes more ubiquitous, schools 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 protec-tions 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. The ACLU supported legislation sponsored by Senator Adam Satchell to put in place critical privacy protections, by clarifying that the devices could only be searched when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the child has engaged in misconduct, prohibiting remote ac-cess except in limited circumstances, and allowing parents to opt their child out of such one-to-one tech-nology programs entirely. The bill was not voted on by committee, and died.

Voting Rights

Electronic Voter Registration (EVR) (H 6051A, S 0821) Passed by House, Died in Senate
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. Secretary of State legislation sponsored by Representative Aaron Regunberg and Senator Gayle Goldin sought to change that by allowing for electronic voter registration. It would have allowed voters to easily register and keep their registration up to date, and in response to ACLU proposals, also ensured that EVR would be accessible to people with disabilities. The House passed the legislation, but the Senate did not it vote on it in time and it died.

Ban Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 5155, S 0239) Passed by Senate, Died in House
When it comes to drawing new voting districts, all individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston when the decennial Census is conducted are recorded as living at the ACI, including individuals who are still allowed to vote – and can legally only vote – from their home address. 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 in Cranston is comprised of voters who cannot vote there. This legislation, sponsored by Senator Harold Metts and Rep-resentative Anastasia Williams, would rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes, at their last known address. Similar legislation passed the Senate last year, but failed to move in the House; the same occurred this year. An ACLU lawsuit on the issue is pending in federal court.

Due Process

Municipal Ordinance Penalties (S 0844) Passed by Senate, Died in House
Under state law, municipalities can charge no more than $500 for violations of municipal ordinances. Under legislation passed by the Senate, that amount would have quadrupled. The legislation, submitted on behalf of the City of Providence, would allow municipalities to levy $2,000 fines for violations of ordinances such as disorderly conduct and panhandling. The ACLU and others objected that fines for ordinance violations are already disproportionately levied against those least able to pay, raising serious equity questions. The bill did not receive a vote in House committee, and died.

Notification of Court Fees (H 6026, S 0792) Passed by House, Died in Senate
The ACLU opposed legislation eliminating the notice requirement before an individual’s name can be in-cluded on a list of persons owing overdue court fees. Under current law, the finance director must notify a person in writing at least thirty days before including them on this publicly posted “shaming” list. This leg-islation would have stricken that requirement. The House approved the bill, but it never received a Senate vote.

Privacy

Cell Phone Location Tracking (H 5373, S 0659) DIED
Approximately every seven seconds, the cell phone you carry pings the nearest cell phone 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. This information paints a complete picture of your life, and is currently available to law enforcement at their request. The ACLU supported legislation regulating the collection of cell phone location information by law enforcement. Sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello and Sen. Donna Nesselbush, this legislation would have required law enforcement to obtain a warrant before requesting location information, except in emergencies dealing with the threat of death or serious physical injury. However, the bills died without a vote.

Automated License Plate Readers (H 5610A as amended) DIED
The ACLU testified in opposition to legislation sanctioning the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) by the Department of Public Safety. 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. This legislation would have authorized the use of the cameras without containing any critical privacy protections. The House passed the legislation, but it died without receiving a committee hearing in the Senate.


Upcoming Events

Constitution Day Scavenger Hunt
Saturday, Sept. 19 in Downtown Providence

Find the fun in civil liberties with this family-friendly scavenger hunt that will take you around the city to learn more about the Constitution and Rhode Island. We’re still planting clues, so be on the look out for more details in the coming weeks.

2015 Banned Books Celebration
Monday, October 5 at the Weaver Library

Celebrate your freedom to read with the ACLU of Rhode Island and the Weaver Library! Our annual Banned Books Week event will feature dramatic readings from Living Literature.

2015 Annual Meeting
Thursday, October 22 at the Providence Biltmore

Save the date for our Annual Meeting Celebration at the historic Providence Biltmore Hotel.
Contact Megan at the ACLU office at 831-7171 if you wish to place an ad in this year’s program book.


Your Eastside Marketplace Receipts

The ACLU of RI participates in Eastside Marketplace’s Friendship Fund. The Friendship Fund is the store’s way of giving back to the community. Simply save your receipts and mail them to the RI ACLU office.  Eastside Marketplace then issues checks at the rate of 1% of the total Eastside Marketplace register receipts redeemed. The more receipts redeemed, the more money we raise!