COVID-19 & Civil Liberties in RI
The ACLU of RI is watching closely to ensure that the government's response to the COVID-19 crisis is scientifically justified and no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary. Our response is motivated, in part, by the following principles:
- Government responses should be based on science & public health.
- Any response plan must protect the health, safety, and civil liberties of all.
- We need to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable people in our society, including people who are detained and incarcerated.
- Government transparency and the right to vote are fundamental to our democracy – especially in times of crisis.
Page last updated June 4, 2020. We will continue to update this page as the situation develops.
Click a topic to scroll down to that section.
- INCARCERATED & DETAINED PEOPLE
- VOTING RIGHTS
- RIGHTS of PEOPLE with DISABILITIES
- DUE PROCESS & UI BENEFITS
- 4TH AMENDMENT RIGHTS
- STUDENTS' RIGHTS
- OPEN GOVERNMENT
- COURT CLOSURES
- THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Inmates and detainees – confined in very close quarters and without easy access to hygienic supplies – are among the most vulnerable populations to the spread of COVID-19. We have taken a number of actions to protect this vulnerable group including:
- In March, we wrote to officials at both the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Wyatt Detention Center, calling on them to immediately develop evidence-based and proactive plans for the prevention and management of COVID-I9. That letter is here.
- In April, we filed an emergency lawsuit which resulted in the release from Wyatt of three ICE detainees who are especially vulnerable to serious illness or death in the event of COVID-19 infection. More information on the case can be found here.
- Also in April, we filed an Access to Public Records request with state officials for information about RI’s plans to address a likely, and potentially catastrophic, outbreak of COVID-19 at the ACI. Click here for more info on that.
- In early May, we wrote to the RI DOC requesting that officials start making public bi-weekly reports documenting COVID-19 cases, testing and other data. Wyatt has already been court ordered to do this, the DOC must follow suit. Click here for the letter we sent.
- On May 15, we filed a class action lawsuit seeking release for all ICE detainees at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls. Bail hearings in that lawsuit began on June 3.
In advance of the September and November elections, we also sent a letter to the Board of Elections and Secretary of State urging careful consideration of the signature collection process currently used for candidates to qualify to be on the ballot. That letter is here. We are considering next steps due to inaction on the part of the Board of Elections.
Regarding the recent presidential primary, please reach out if you have experienced problems voting.
On April 29, a large group of RI organizations, including the ACLU of RI, sent a letter to Governor Raimondo demanding that she issue a clear directive to prohibit discrimatory treatment of people with disabilities in accessing emergency and/or life saving medical treatment during the pandemic.
In May, we filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the state Department of Labor and Training’s (DLT) actions in summarily freezing weekly unemployment insurance benefit payments to hundreds of Rhode Islanders without any notice or explanation. On June 3, the DLT agreed to take interim action to address the frozen benefits. More here.
An Executive Order from Governor Raimondo issued in March gives police the power to stop cars with ANY out-of-state license plates coming into Rhode Island. Police exercise of this power raises extraordinarily serious constitutional concerns, and the ACLU called on the Governor to amend or repeal the EO in question. However, because the police do not ask for ID at the stops, have disavowed any attempt at law enforcement during them, and take no action against drivers who refuse to provide information, the ACLU has held off on taking any legal action for the time being. The ACLU is continuing to closely monitor the situation. Our blog post providing more detail on our position, which was also published as an op-ed in the Providence Journal, can be found here. The Immigrant Coalition also expressed concerns about the impact of the stops on undocumented immigrants driving through Rhode Island, and the R.I. State Police issued a response disavowing any plans to use the stops for law enforcement purposes. The Coalition sent a follow-up letter.
As schools move to remote learning, we want to ensure that students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and families without access to computers or the Internet receive the education that they are entitled to by law. To this end, a dozen organizations called on the Commissioner of Education to post online on one site the remote instruction plans that districts have been ordered to submit. A major goal of the request is to make it easier for parents and advocates to review and compare plans and to ensure that remote learning does not exacerbate educational inequities.
The ACLU of RI has also conducted a recent review of school district tech privacy policies in the state, finding that many districts allow for widespread snooping on both students and families. The review found that many school district policies on this issue allow for remote access to school-loaned computers’ microphones and cameras, and third-party programs used for remote learning that are installed on both loaned devices and personal computers allow school officials to view weeks of browsing activity. The ACLU has urged school districts to amend their practices and strengthen privacy rights for students.
We issued a statement regarding the Governor's announcement of a voluntary contact tracing app. In response to news reports that the Department of Health is sharing with law enforcement the addresses of people who have COVID-19, we sent a letter expressing grave concern and urging the DOH to cease this information-sharing. That letter is here.
Government transparency and the public’s right to know are even more critical during emergency situations. In March, Governor Raimondo issued an executive order suspending certain provisions of both the Open Meetings Act and the Access to Public Records Act. While the ACLU recognizes that some relaxation of these laws is appropriate in light of social distancing requirements, the scope and breadth of the order were deeply concerning. In response to an ACLU and Common Cause of RI letter calling on the Governor to revise the order, her office has since issued additional guidance to state agencies and municipalities that incorporates almost all of the recommendations proposed. As a follow up, the ACLU sent a letter to municipal leaders in RI urging them to ensure public bodies under their jurisditions abide by the new standards for transparency.
When the EO suspending provisions of the APRA failed to expire after more than two months, seven open government organizations sent the Governor a letter calling on her to repeal the order in the interest of the public's right to know.
The ACLU continues to monitor the state's actions in quarantining individuals and technological approach to contact tracing. We have written the state on behalf of one couple with homes in both Rhode Island and New York state who travel back to New York every few weeks for chemotherapy treatments, and who face quarantine every time they return to Rhode Island. The letter raises concerns about the lack of due process procedures to challenge a quarantine order as well as the state's failure to have the infrastructure in place to ensure that people quarantined have access to food and other necessities. The ACLU is also planning to respond to emergency regulations issued by the RI Department of Health implementing the Governor's quarantine Executive Order.
The courts are currently open and available to address emergency matters. Specifically, courts are open to hear pleas from arrestees and pre-trial detainees to reduce their bail, and 2) they continue to hold judicial bypass hearings for minors seeking abortions. As of June 1, certain non-emergency court matters have also resumed. For specific information, visit the RI Judiciary website.
The General Assembly remains closed for business. The ACLU has serious concerns with the prospect of conducting legislative business and voting remotely because of the impact it will have on the public’s ability to monitor and be heard on General Assembly actions.