2005 Legislative Session
The RI ACLU lobbied on well over 100 bills in the 2005 legislative session, so the following summary of the Affiliate’s legislative activities is far from complete. Nonetheless, it should provide readers a good sense of the broad scope of legislative work that the ACLU performed in 2005. Please feel free to contact the ACLU office if you would like more information about any of these bills.
For the second time in five years, the Senate passed a dangerous bill that would require women to wait at least 24 hours before obtaining an abortion and impose onerous and biased “informed consent” requirements unlike those for any other medical procedure. Fortunately, the House took no action on the proposal. In testifying against the legislation, ACLU volunteer attorney Carolyn Mannis pointed out numerous constitutional problems with the bill. Earlier this year the state was ordered to pay ACLU attorneys over $300,000 in attorneys fees for their successful challenge to the last antichoice bill passed by the legislature, the so-called “partial birth abortion” ban enacted in 2000.
Criminal Justice Bills
Quick ACLU action led to the demise of a seemingly innocuous resolution establishing a commission to study reinstatement of the death penalty in Rhode Island. The resolution was introduced by Rep. Raymond Gallison after the fatal shooting of Providence police detective James Allen in April. In contrast to normal procedure, the bill was placed directly on the House calendar for a vote, but the Affiliate succeeded in having the bill sent to committee, where it was not heard from again.
The Senate took no action on a bill approved by the House that would have doubled the criminal penalties for various drug crimes if committed within 300 yards of a public college or university. In opposing the bill, the ACLU noted that the offenses already carry draconian penalties of 20 years to life. At the same time, the House took no action on a perennial and extraordinarily costly Senate favorite, significantly increasing the time many convicted offenders would have to serve before being eligible for parole.
In another unfortunate civil liberties loss, the House defeated a bill, sponsored by Rep. Fausto Anguilla, that would have required police to record most interrogations of suspects charged with capital offenses. Designed to eliminate coerced and sometimes false confessions – a problem that has been documented across the country in capital cases – the bill was the bane of many police chiefs in the state who succeeded in its defeat.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Before enacting a bill providing tax credits for the production of movies and television shows in Rhode Island, the General Assembly took heed of ACLU censorship concerns. As originally drafted, the bill barred tax credits for any film or television series “that could receive” an NC-17 or TVMA rating, or that was “suitable for adult viewing only.” The ACLU argued that the bill inappropriately placed government officials in the role of censors and could create a chilling effect on some film-making. In response, the bill was amended to prohibit tax credits only for productions falling under federal pornography laws.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Bills
Although no vote was taken in committee this year, support for same-sex marriage legislation continued to grow. In April, the Campaign for Marriage Equality, of which the ACLU is a member, drew hundreds of people to a State House rally in support of the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Art Handy and Sen. Rhoda Perry. Dozens of supporters, including ACLU Board member James Greer, also testified in support of the legislation at committee hearings. The progress being made on this controversial issue is cause for optimism.
Domestic Partner Benefits
On a related front, a bill providing for death benefits to the domestic partners of police officers or firefighters who die in the line of duty appears close to passage. The bill passed the Senate early in the session, only to die in House Judiciary Committee on a 5-3 vote, taken when most committee members were absent. In response, the Senate re-passed a mirror version of the bill, which was then approved by House Finance Committee in the waning days of the session. The full House may consider the bill when the body returns this summer to address veto overrides.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
No action was taken on a bill drafted by the ACLU, and supported by a coalition of immigrants’ rights groups, to address the problems faced by both legal and undocumented immigrants in getting drivers’ licenses, while establishing clear and strict criteria to reduce fraud. Sponsored by Rep. Grace Diaz and Sen. Juan Pichardo, the bill seeks to overturn Governor Carcieri’s decision to bar individuals without Social Security Numbers from getting drivers’ licenses. Denying licenses to undocumented residents only forces them to drive without a license and without insurance, thus hindering public safety, and has the ironic impact of making it more difficult for the government to track immigrants residing here. In light of the recent passage of a federal law that will require nationwide standards for drivers’ licenses, advocacy groups will now find themselves limited in how they can address this problem in a positive manner.
A Miscellany of Bills That Died This Session
Listed below are a few other bills of civil liberties interest reviewed in prior newsletters that did not make it out of the General Assembly this session:
PRO-CIVIL LIBERTIES BILLS
- A bill to strengthen the state’s open records law.
- A bill to waive the state’s “sovereign immunity” from suit for violations of key federal civil rights, labor and environmental laws.
- A bill to amend the “unauthorized practice of law” statute to allow attorneys to share attorneys fees with non-profit organizations.
- A bill to limit state and municipal agencies from collecting Social Security Numbers as a condition of providing services.
- A bill to restrict local police from enforcing federal immigration law.
ANTI-CIVIL LIBERTIES BILLS
- A bill to require the state’s public universities to adopt policies that prohibit “any quality of indoctrination.”
- A bill to pass a “primary seat belt law” without protections against racial profiling.
- A bill to establish a males-only charter school for juvenile offenders being released from the Training School.
- A bill to allow for the forced administration of blood tests on persons involved in vehicular accidents involving death or serious injury.
- A bill to allow victims of “hate crimes” to keep their voter registration information secret.
Open Government Bills
Legislation, the ACLU and Open Government: An In-Depth Look
As noted earlier, the Affiliate lobbies on more than one hundred pieces of legislation each session, so the newsletter can only highlight a small percentage of our activities. In order to give members a more in-depth sense of the Affiliate’s legislative work, we have picked one topic – open government – and briefly summarize below how the ACLU helped shape a variety of pieces of legislation, both large and small, on the issue this session.
- Following harsh criticism from the ACLU about an Attorney General opinion holding that the open meetings law allows telephone meetings by public bodies, the General Assembly passed a bill overturning that ruling. As originally introduced, however, the bill contained an exemption that would have allowed phone meetings for members of public bodies residing on Block Island. The Affiliate convinced the bill’s sponsors to remove that exemption. (Regrettably, legislators later added another one – though admittedly small – for people serving in the military.)
- When the General Assembly was on the verge of passing a “jobs growth” bill designed specifically to provide a tax break to executives at Fidelity Investments (but potentially available to other businesses as well), the ACLU objected to language that made confidential the entire eligibility and application process for companies seeking the tax break. In response, the bill was amended to make public some of the application information which raised no legitimate privacy concerns.
- Nursing home reform was at the top of the General Assembly’s agenda this year. As originally introduced, reform legislation kept strictly confidential any information obtained by the Department of Health regarding a significant change in a nursing home’s financial condition. While acknowledging that much of the financial information provided to the Department might be proprietary, the ACLU objected that the bill made the very fact of a dangerous change in financial conditions – a change that could easily and severely impact residents’ welfare – confidential. That provision and similar sections of the bills were changed to address the ACLU’s “right to know” concerns.
- When the House of Representatives proposed its rules of procedures for the new session in February, the ACLU was very concerned about some of the provisions. One proposed rule barred any photographic or video recording of House sessions or committee meetings without permission and another made committee votes on bills available to the public only upon written request – a new, unnecessary and burdensome requirement in conflict with the state’s open records law. Both provisions were removed after the ACLU objected.
- In opposing the “red light camera” bill, the Affiliate successfully pushed for an amendment that replaced confidentiality language with a provision ensuring that aggregate data about violations and an annual report analyzing the efficacy of the technology will be public information.
- A bill establishing a pilot program for the redistribution of unused prescription drugs to indigents was amended, at the ACLU’s suggestion, to require the Department of Health to seek public input before adopting regulations implementing the new program.
Responding to one of the newest technological fads with serious potential consequences for privacy rights, the General Assembly passed an ACLU-drafted bill barring the state or municipalities, including schools, from making use of radio frequency identification (RFID) devices on students, employees or clients. Unfortunately, the Governor vetoed the bill even though it had been amended to address concerns raised by some state agencies. Earlier this year, a disturbing story from California reported how one school district there was requiring students to wear RFID tags, which allowed their identity and movement to be tracked electronically. RFID technology has been used to track cattle and commerce, but the privacy implications of its mandatory use on people are extremely troubling. The bill to restrict their use was sponsored by Rep. Charlene Lima. The bill will be pushed again next session.
Red Light Cameras
As the result of a major push by Providence city officials, the General Assembly approved legislation authorizing the installation of “red light cameras,” but only after accepting a bevy of ACLU amendments designed to mitigate some of the organization’s civil liberties concerns. As their name implies, the cameras take pictures of motor vehicles going through red lights, and vehicle owners are ticketed based on the photos. The ACLU has objected to the cameras on both due process and privacy grounds. In addition, although the cameras are touted as a way to reduce side-angle crashes, recent studies suggest that they actually increase rear-end crashes! Among the amendments accepted were a requirement that warning signs be posted at all intersections where the cameras are in use and elimination of a provision that the driver’s face, as well as the license plate, be photographed. Just as importantly, a three-year sunset clause was approved.
For the fourth year in a row, the Senate passed, but the House took no action on, legislation based in part on a USA Patriot Act provision, to give local law enforcement broad authority to obtain subscriber information, including bank and credit card numbers, from Internet service providers without a warrant. In opposing the bill, the ACLU noted that the legislation allows police to obtain this personal information without providing subscribers any chance to contest the request, and without even suspecting the subscriber of any crime. After a hearing, House Finance Committee took no action on the bill.
Sex Offenders Bills
Sex Offender Notification
In a civil liberties defeat, the General Assembly passed a bill significantly expanding the number of sex offenders whose names and photos will be posted on a state web site for public viewing. Presently, only offenders that a state review board deems likely to reoffend and subject to community-wide notification are included on the site. The new law adds most other sex offenders regardless of their re-offense risk, and thus eliminates a key distinction in the state’s version of “Megan’s Law.” The ACLU argued that the bill would only undermine the rehabilitative efforts of those trying to reintegrate themselves into the community, without providing any real protection to the public.
Sexual Privacy Bills
“The oldest profession” appeared to weigh heavily on the minds of some legislators this session, due to some recent highly publicized police raids on Providence “spas” claiming to offer massage services that were actually fronts for prostitution. Even though police officials acknowledged that the women, mostly foreign, were likely the victims of human trafficking, the city pushed a bill designed to increase the criminal sentences that could be imposed on them, without going after the traffickers at all. After the ACLU mounted a strong lobbying effort against the bill, the sponsors withdrew the legislation. Not to be outdone, however, the General Assembly instead passed a separate law in the closing hours of the session, requiring all licensed massage therapists to be fingerprinted and undergo nationwide criminal records check for any “sexual offense.” The ACLU pointed out, to no avail, that the prostitutes being arrested in the spa raids were unlicensed, and that the law would only burden legitimate therapists without having any impact whatsoever on the problem it was allegedly designed to address. Further, the criminal background checks required by the law are actually more extensive and onerous than those required for nursing home employees and other sensitive state-licensed occupations. The ACLU also objected, unsuccessfully, to the bill’s stereotypical premise, equating licensed massage therapy with prostitution.
Students Rights Bills
The General Assembly approved an ACLU bill, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello, setting standards for police interrogation of students in public schools. The bill generally requires parents of students in grades 1-8 to first be contacted, if possible, and offered the opportunity to be present at any such in-school interrogations. High school students are provided the option of having a parent or other third party present for any interrogation. Last year, the ACLU investigated a complaint from parents in one school district where their child was questioned alone in school – in response to an anonymous tip – about allegedly having been pregnant and burying her fetus in the basement. There was no basis for the allegation, but the interrogation understandably left the student (and her parents) quite distraught.
The Senate took no action on a House-passed bill to give school districts the power to disenroll any student they deemed to be a “habitual truant” if the school claimed it could not reach the child’s parents. The bill contained no definition of “habitual truant,” and the ACLU claimed it would give schools the power to remove “problem” students who are entitled to an education.
Voting Rights Bills
In a major victory for civil rights, the General Assembly approved sending to the voters in November 2006 a proposed constitutional amendment to restore the right to vote to felons upon release from incarceration. Presently, felons lose their voting rights until their sentence of probation or parole is completed, which can be years or even decades after they have returned to the community and become productive, tax-paying members of society. The restriction has had a particularly devastating impact on African-Americans in Rhode Island. In fact, because of its lengthy parole and probation sentences, Rhode Island disenfranchises a higher percentage of blacks than many Southern states. The ACLU, which helped draft the constitutional amendment, is part of a broad-based coalition that will be working to get the proposal approved by the voters next year. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Joseph Almeida and Sen. Harold Metts.
Voting by Non-Residents
ACLU intervention helped kill a bill that would have authorized the Town of Westerly to allow non-resident property owners to vote in certain town elections and serve on the Town’s finance board. The proposal was pushed by seasonal property owners who persuaded the Town Council to support the concept. The ACLU argued that whether a person is a resident or non-resident of the town, the Constitution does not allow discrimination in voting based directly on the criterion of property ownership where other non-property owners have similar interests. Sen. Dennis Algiere, the bill’s sponsor, agreed to kill the legislation after it had passed the Senate in light of the constitutional issues raised.
War on Drugs Bills
War On Terrorism Bills
Two bills promoted by the Affiliate in response to the government’s continuing “war on terrorism” died in committee. One proposal, sponsored by Rep. Fausto Anguilla and Sen. Charles Levesque but vigorously opposed by the State Police, was designed to restrict police from engaging in political surveillance. The bill was prompted in part by the ACLU’s disclosure in December that the Providence Police Department obtained over $100,000 in federal homeland security money for police officers to attend a training on how to “handle” protests and “civil actions.” A second bill, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Charles Levesque, sought to repeal a 2002 statute, passed in the wake of 9/11 hysteria, exempting from the open records law various records of water management supply systems. The only real effect of this law is to keep citizens in the dark about water supply problems. At committee hearings, the bill was supported by environmental groups and the Division of Statewide Planning, while opposed by the state water resources board which, apparently, carried the most sway. The ACLU plans to push for passage of both bills next session.
Workplace Rights Bills
The legislature enacted an ACLUproposed bill, sponsored by Rep. Paul Moura and Sen. Frank Ciccone, imposing penalties on any employer who videotapes employees in a restroom, locker room, or room designated by an employer for changing clothes. Last year, the Affiliate received a complaint from employees at a local establishment that their employer had installed video surveillance cameras in the employees’ restrooms (purportedly in response to drug concerns). Passage of the legislation sends a clear message against such shocking invasions of privacy.
Right to Travel
The General Assembly approved legislation barring residency requirements for municipal employees. The law will mainly affect Providence, where a tug of war has been occurring for more than two decades over residency provisions in the City Charter. The ACLU has long opposed residency requirements for violating privacy rights and relying on unfair generalizations.