COVID-19 & Civil Liberties in RI
Even in a public health emergency, the government must make every effort to protect our rights. The ACLU of RI is watching closely to make sure that the government's response to this crisis is scientifically justified and no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary.
Below, you will find more information on the issues the ACLU of RI is working on to protect civil liberties in response to COVID-19.
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 Tuesday, April 7, 2020. We will continue to update this page as the situation develops.
As a result of COVID-19, the state’s presidential primary, scheduled to take place at the end of April, has been postponed until June 2nd. Because of the need for social distancing, there is agreement that this rescheduled election must primarily rely on mail ballots. The ACLU of RI, and two other RI voting rights groups, urged officials to adopt standards and procedures to ensure that voters have sufficient time to participate by mail, and that the procedures established for doing this do not disenfranchise voters. For more information on that, click here for the press release. At a meeting on March 26th, the Board of Elections agreed to waive the witness and notarization requirements. The Secretary of State also issued a favorable response to the letter.
FOURTH AMENDMENT RIGHTS
At her March 26th news conference, Governor Raimondo announced that she plans to give State Police the power to stop any car with New York license plates in order to obtain contact information from the driver and passengers. Police exercise of this power raises extraordinarily serious constitutional concerns, and the ACLU urged the Governor to not follow through with this ill-advised plan. Click here for our statement on this. A more recent executive order from Governor Gina Raimondo now gives the RI State Police and the National Guard the power to stop any car with out-of-state license plates coming into Rhode Island. Click here for our statement expressing concerns about that. 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 has also expressed concerns about the impact of the stops on undocumented immigrants driving through Rhode Island, and the R.I. State Police has issued a response which the Coalition expects to follow up on.
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 have 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 expansion of virtual learning for students also raises privacy issues of concern to the ACLU. A few years ago, we conducted a survey of school districts which loaned computers to their students so they could do schoolwork at home; we found that parents were often giving school officials access not only to all of the content stored on the devices – even when parents and students were encouraged to use the computers for non-academic purposes – but also authorizing the surreptitious activation of the computer’s microphone and camera. Now that students have no choice but to use the devices at home, the ACLU will be urging school districts to amend their practices and strengthen privacy rights for students.
Inmates – confined in very close quarters and without easy access to hygienic supplies – are among the most vulnerable populations to the spread of COVID-19. Last week, the ACLU of RI wrote to officials at both the Department of Corrections and the Wyatt Detention Center, calling on them to take steps to address this issue at their facilities. The Governor's office held a teleconference call this week with DOC and DOH officials to report on the agencies' activities. We are closely monitoring this issue. Wyatt's response to our letter can be found here.
One way of mitigating the potential harm is letting some people out of prison who don’t need to be there, including inmates whose parole date is not far away, and elderly inmates and those with serious health conditions. Actions to this effect are taking place elsewhere, and it is critical that RI public officials give this serious consideration. The Public Defender has filed an emergency petition with the RI Supreme Court, requesting the release of all inmates who have 90 days or less to serve on their sentence. The Supreme Court has issued an order approving the release of some of those inmates.
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 are deeply concerning. In response, the ACLU and Common Cause have called on the Governor to revise the executive order to limit its reach. In response, the Governor's office has since issued additional guidance to state agencies and municipalities that incorporates almost all of the recommendations the ACLU had proposed.
At the moment, the courts have taken steps to make sure they are open and available to address emergency matters. Two examples from the state courts: (1) they will be open to hear pleas from arrestees and pre-trial detainees to reduce their bail, and 2) they will continue to hold judicial bypass hearings for minors seeking abortions. The federal court order which shuttered the courthouse made clear that, while conducting most of its business electronically, the courthouse would be open to address “activities to support rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” The ACLU of RI will continue monitoring the courthouse situations to protect access to justice.
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
The General Assembly is closed for business until further notice. Some legislators have suggested conducting business and voting remotely, but the ACLU has serious concerns about this approach because of the impact it will have on the public’s ability to both monitor and be heard on the General Assembly’s actions. For that reason, the ACLU presently opposes any efforts to hold remote sessions. At the same time, we will continue to carefully monitor the actions of the Governor and other executive agencies exercising emergency powers in order to avoid abuses or overreaching of authority.