2017 Legislative Session
The 2016 legislative year saw some important pro-civil liberties legislation make its way to the Governor's desk and, perhaps more importantly, a great number of anti-civil liberties measures die. As the 2017 Legislative Session gears up some bills are still being introduced. Below you will find information about some of the bills that the ACLU has already testified on and has been working on for the past couple of months.
Continue to visit our site for updates on these and other bills during the 2017 Legislative Session.
Abortion (H 5343, S 274)
With the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance in light of a divided U.S. Supreme Court, Representative Edith Ajello (H 5343) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 274) have introduced legislation that would codify the principles of that seminal court decision into state law. The House bill includes more than thirty co-sponsors, the most legislative support for abortion rights that the ACLU has seen in decades.
Repeal of Prohibition for Aborition Insurance (H 5435)
During the first week of March, the House Corportations Committee heard testimony regarding legislation introduced by Rep. Almeida (H 5435) to repeal the provisions of the general laws that currently prohibit health insurance coverage for induced abortions in policies covering state and municipal employees. This important legislation would ensure that employees that receive their health insurance through their state or municipal job would not be denied the necessary medical coverage through their health insurance plans if they needed to undergo an abortion procedure. The ACLU strongly supports this legislation.
Civil Rights Bills
Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners (S 0282)
Legislation sponsored by Senator Erin Lynch Prata will strengthen the state’s limitation on shackling pregnant incarcerated women. A restrained pregnant woman cannot move freely or control her balance, placing both her and her fetus at risk. While state law generally prohibits shackling pregnant women during transport to a medical facility, this legislation will additionally prohibit shackling to or from a court proceeding during an inmate’s third trimester.
Gender Rating (H 5109)
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 is generally illegal under the Affordable Care Act, but gaps in Rhode Island law allow the practice to continue. The potential repeal of the ACA by Congress further solidifies the need for protections at the state level. Passage of legislation being sponsored by Representative Katherine Kazarian and Senator Susan Sosnowski will keep gender rating out of Rhode Island, regardless of any changes to federal law. Read the ACLU's testimony.
Municipal Courts (H 5187, S 71)
The ACLU joined with the Public Defender and the RI Coalition for the Homeless to support legislation requiring municipal courts to provide free attorneys to indigent defendants charged with ordinance violations that could result in imprisonment. The legislation was proposed by Representative Shelby Maldonado (H 5187) and Senator Stephen Archambault (S 71). During the hearings in the Senate and the House, all the testifiers noted that the bill merely codified what the Constitution already requires, but what some municipalities are ignoring.
Criminal Justice Bills
Juvenile Sentencing (H 5183, S 0237)
This legislation aims to address the long sentences of juveniles who are charged as adults. As the U.S. Supreme Court has previously noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” Yet many who commit their crimes as children are viewed as incapable of rehabilitation, and incarcerated long into their adulthood. Under the proposed legislation, juveniles who are sentenced as adults would automatically come before the parole board after fifteen years, regardless of the length of their sentence, giving these young adults the chance to prove their fitness to return to society. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation sponsored by Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski (H 5183) and Senator Harold M. Metts (S 237).
Justice Reinvestment Package
During 2016, the General Assembly seemed poised to pass a number of important bills aimed at improving the criminal justice system. The package of six bills sprang from the Governor's Justice Reinvestment Working Group, and followed nearly a year's worth of work between government officials and community advocates. Each of these bills passed the Senate but, in a disappointing turn of events, the House failed to act on any of the legislation before the end of the 2016 session and each of the bills died. In efforts to revive these efforts once again, early in the 2017 session the package was once again introduced. Among these bills is legislation clarifying the definition of misdemeanor and felony (H 5115, S 0011) and amending the appropriate penalties, adjusting the way probation and parole are done, and establishing a Superior Court diversion program (H 5064, S 0010). Early in February, the Senate once again passed the package of bills and referred them to the House Judiciary Committee where they are still being held for further study.
Human Trafficking (H 5300, S 73)
In February the ACLU and the Urban Justice Center testified before the House (H 5300) and Senate (S 73) Judiciary Committee with concerns about the legislation. The bill provides immunity to trafficked minors only if they state in their defense that they were a trafficking victim – a statement many victims are not ready to make when they are arrested. Other parts of the legislation raised First Amendment concerns, and penalize behavior that was not criminal at the time it was conducted. The legislation also would turn soliciting prostitution from a misdemeanor into a felony, imposing extremely harsh penalties on individuals engaged in consensual sexual activity.
Blue Lives (H 5260)
This legislation would enhance the penalties for crimes committed against a police officer by making them “hate crimes.” In February, the ACLU testified in front of the House Judiciary committee stating that treating crimes against police officers as hate crimes devalues the discrimination that truly marginalized communities such as members of the LGBTQ community and people of color have faced for decades. Similar legislation has been introduced throughout the country in response to the killing of six officers in Dallas in 2016. However, FBI reports demonstrate that crimes committed against police, regardless of motive, are at an all time low.
Good Samaritan - Alcohol Overdose (H 5402, S 170)
The "Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act of 2016" protects individuals from being prosecuted when they seek medical assistance for someone experiencing a drug overdose or other drug-related medical emergency. This legislation, which has aready been heard in the House (H 5402) and the Senate (S 170) Judiciary committees respectively, would include alcohol overdose and alcohol use by minors. The ACLU has been a strong supporter of the Good Samaritan legislation in the General Assembly for many years, and it is our hope that this important addition to the existing Act will be considered by the legislature.
Unauthorized Computer Access (H 5543)
As part of a package of computer crimes legislation put forward by the Attorney General's office, whistleblowers who guessed a computer password could have faced up to five years in prison. In February the ACLU testified before the House (H 5543) Judiciary committee in opposition to the broadly worded legislation that treated whistleblowers the same as malicious hackers, subjecting them to felony penalties for gaining "unauthorized access" to a computer. The ACLU noted that similarly broad wording in federal legislation has been used to punish exactly these individuals.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Panhandling (H 5210 and H-5258)
In March, the ACLU testified on two bills regarding panhandling in front of the House Judiciary Committee. H-5210 would make it illegal for a driver or passenger in a motor vehicle to “stop on any public highway to give any person any item.” H-5258 bans loitering on a public highway under certain circumstances. Both pieces of legislation are clearly aimed at panhandling, although they would also have a much broader impact on the exercise of First Amendment rights generally.
The ACLU has continuously criticized municipalities who have proposed or tried to pass ordinances aimed at criminalizing panhandling. Such has been the case with the City of Cranston which in January passed a proposal that would ban a person from entering or standing in a roadway or median for the purpose of distributing anything to, or receiving anything from, the occupant of a motor vehicle.
Autopsies (H 5473)
During March, the ACLU testified on this bill (H 5473) which amends current the state law designed to protect the religious freedom of Rhode Islanders by restricting autopsies when it would contravene the decedent’s religious beliefs. Specifically, the bill would delete the option for a “friend” of the deceased to object to an autopsy, and instead require that the objection come only from a family member or legal guardian. The addition of a legal guardian to be able to object on behalf of a decedent is important, however, removing the “friend” authorization in those instances when a family member or guardian is not available is problematic. The term “friend” iserves as an important safeguard for those instances when no family member is available to provide information about a decedent’s religious beliefs. In order to preserve the important goal of religious freedom represented by this law, we urge that the language regarding a friend’s ability, in the absence of a family member, to object to an autopsy remain. Thank you in advance for considering our views.
Free Speech Bills
“Revenge Porn” (H 5304)
In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the Attorney General’s so-called revenge porn legislation (H 5304), which, we noted in our testimony, required neither revenge nor porn to subject a person to criminal penalties. The legislation would make it a crime to electronically transmit nude or sexually explicit images without the person’s consent. The Media Coalition and the R.I. Press Association also opposed the bill. Publishing some of the photos from Abu Ghraib or, on a less grave note, pictures of Anthony Weiner’s too-exposed body part could be criminal under this bill. That is why Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed this legislation last year and, the ACLU hopes, will veto it again if it is not amended to address the legitimate concerns raised by civil liberties advocates and the media. In the beginning of March, the House Judiciary Committee recommended the bill for passage and placed it on the House Floor Calendar.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
E-Verify (H 5195)
The ACLU of RI submitted written testimony in March to the House Labor committee in opposition to a bill making E-Verify use mandatory by Rhode Island employers, and in favor of a bill (H 5195) keeping the E-Verify program voluntary. The ACLU noted 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.
Open Government Bills
Access to Public Records (S 68)
The Access to Public Records Act dictates when public entities can keep documents from public view, and the rights of the public to view or obtain other documents. Despite updates in 2013, an audit by the ACLU and other groups concerned with transparency in government found the law’s enforcement policies insufficient to ensure compliance from dozens of agencies. The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Senator Stephen Archambault (S 68) to make it easier for the public to obtain documents of public concern. Among other provisions, the legislation clarifies when documents such as arrest reports and correspondence by elected officials could be exempt from release, requires bodies to note the reasons for withholding any document, requires public bodies to prominently feature their public records policies on their websites, and allows courts to impose stronger penalties on those bodies that improperly withhold documents.
38 Studios Public Records (H 5347)
This legislation would make public any records generated or obtained by the Rhode Island state police or Attorney General in their investigation of the 38 Studios scandal. The ACLU assisted sponsor Rep. Charlene Lima in drafting the legislation, and House Judiciary Committee has approved the measure. Citing the strong public interest in their release, the ACLU and other open government groups had been calling for disclosure of the documents since last year.
Administrative Procedures Act (H 5339)
Currently, the state Board of Elections is virtually the only major state agency exempt from the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires state agencies to adopt rules and regulations through an open, public process. As a result, the Board can modify how elections take place in Rhode Island without having to inform the public or accept public input. In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Carlos Tobon (H 5339) to eliminate this exemption.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Child Support (H 5553, S 406)
Based on new federal regulations, legislation sponsored by Rep. Grace Diaz (H 5553) and Sen. Erin Lynch Prata (S 406) would establish a formal process for the incarceration of an individual to be taken into consideration for the purposes of modifying child support orders. In March, the ACLU of RI testified in front of the Senate Judiciary committee in support of this legislation that would help ensure that incarcerated non-custodial parents will no longer have to be put through the existing burdensome process for modification of child support and that their incarceration will not be treated as “voluntary impoverishment” which puts them in further debt and continues the cycle of poverty and incarceration.
FBI Access to DMV Records (H 5211)
According to a report from the General Accountability Office released in the spring of 2016, Rhode Island was set to become one of 18 states in the process of negotiating Memorandums of Understanding with the FBI to facilitate their access to driver’s license images for purposes of facial recognition matching. At that time, the ACLU raised concerns about it and the DMV agreed to not proceed with any MOU’s. This legislation, proposed by Representative Charlene Lima is important to ensuring that the privacy of every Rhode Islander is protected when they go to the DMV.
Stingrays (H 5393)
The ACLU testified at the House Judiciary Committee regarding this legislation which aims to regulate and limit the use of cell-site simulators, or “stingrays.” Stingray devices are the next step in location tracking, designed to trick cell phones into reporting location information as if the stingray was a normal cell phone tower. Law enforcement entities nationwide install and operate stingrays, capture the cell phone location information of any who pass by, and use the information as they see fit. There is very little information available about the scope of these programs. This legislation was proposed by Blake A. Filippi (H 5393).
Drones (H 5521, S 172)
The ACLU testified in the House (H 5521) and Senate (S 172) Judiciary committees in support of legislation to restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, by law enforcement. Through a combination of increasingly cheaper, more sophisticated technology and financial incentives provided by the federal government, law enforcement entities nationwide have begun obtaining and using drones. This legislation would require a warrant based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion be obtained prior to drone surveillance, it also requires that surveillance be conducted only on an articulated target and that any data captured on a non-target individual must be deleted within 24 hours.
Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs)
This legislation sanctions the installation of automated license plate readers (ALPRs), which are as many as five cameras mounted to police cruisers or other vehicles, capable of capturing images at high speeds and across several lanes of traffic. ALPRs examine license plate data against a series of databases and store this information, along with the date, time, and GPS location of the vehicle. Prior to any use of ALPRs, it is critical that the State of Rhode Island implement clear and specific restrictions on the use of this technology, particularly by law enforcement. The ACLU testified in opposition to this legislation as it has done in the past.
Cell Phone Tracking (H5518)
This legislation submitted on behalf of the Attorney General aims to make amendments to last year's Location Tracking (H 7167, S 2403) bill which requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before requesting location information, except in emergencies dealing with the threat of death or serious physical injury. The amendments would make specific exceptions as to when a warrant or court order is needed.
Uniform Controlled Substances Act (H 5469)
Just a few years ago, the General Assembly took some important steps to protect the privacy of individuals by requiring law enforcement to have a warrant before accessing records in the state’s prescription drug monitoring program (PMP). However, this legislation seeks to undo that progress. During March, the ACLU and the Rhode Island Medical Society testified against this bill stating that the legislation would leave the prescription information of thousands of Rhode Islanders open for scrutiny by police without judicial oversight.
Claiming that the legislation would help address the serious prescription drug epidemic in our state is not enough justification to access an individual's personal medical records. All Rhode Islanders who are prescribed a controlled substance, including anti-anxiety medication, painkillers, and asthma inhalers have their medical information recorded within the database. Yet each of these records would, under this legislation, be available to law enforcement at the mere suggestion that they are necessary for a drug-related investigation. Individuals with chronic pain conditions should not have to fear being investigated by law enforcement viewing these records without context, nor do doctors need to be scrutinized without a judicial confirmation that an investigation is valid.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Background Checks for Volunteers (H 5229)
For the second year in a row, legislation requiring every volunteer in any youth serving agency to undergo a background check was introduced. The legislation contains few specifics on who should receive a background check or what crimes could be considered disqualifying, and includes no ability for volunteers to demonstrate how they have changed since their long-distant conviction. The ACLU testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in opposition to this legislation in February.
Sex Offender Shelter Notification (S 55, H 5207)
In February the ACLU testified in front of the Senate Judiciary committee to oppose legislation that aims to mandate that sex offenders register whenever they may stay - even temporarily - in any homeless shelter. Additionally, the shelters would need to notify local law enforcement about the person’s presence. This legislation was introduced by Representative Lancia (H 5207) and Senator Lombardi (S 55A)