2009 Legislative Session
After remaining in limbo all summer, the 2009 Legislative Session finally came to a much-anticipated close early in the morning of October 29th. And there were a few final victories in January 2010 as the General Assembly voted to pass three civil liberties-protective bills over the Governor's veto. Below is a brief status report on some of the major pieces of legislation the Affiliate has lobbied on this session and that have progressed through the Assembly.
Civil Rights Bills
R.I. Civil Rights Act (S-5135, S-162)
This pro-civil rights legislation clarifies that plaintiffs have three years, rather than one year, to sue under the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act, a major state law prohibiting discrimination in employment and other settings. Although the Governor vetoed this bill, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for an override when they returned in January 2010.
The bill responds to a R.I. Supreme Court ruling that concluded that complainants have only one year to bring suit, even though the default statute of limitations for virtually all other personal injury actions in Rhode Island is three years. The bill had unanimously passed the legislature last year. In vetoing the bill, the Governor called the three-year proviso “unreasonable” to the business community. As a result of the veto, a victim of discrimination now has a shorter time to file suit than just about any other type of claimant, including a person who is a victim of a dog bite (three years) or of property damage to his or her car (ten years).
Smoking Signs (H-5800)
Retailers are currently required by law to post signs where tobacco products are sold to remind minors that it’s illegal for them to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products. A committee hearing was held on legislation that would require those signs to add a warning to pregnant women that smoking is bad for them. The RI ACLU objected that the legislation improperly singles out pregnant women when smoking is known to cause a host of health problems to any number of groups of people, and that the signs would also serve to encourage people to snoop on and report pregnant women who purchase cigarettes. Though the ACLU did not dispute the health risks, the Affiliate testified that it was inappropriate to single out this one group for public shaming. No action was taken on this bill.
Criminal Justice Bills
Mandatory Sentencing (H-5007, S-39)
A twice vetoed bill that would eliminate the draconian mandatory minimum sentences contained in some of Rhode Island’s drug laws, which are the harshest in all of New England, appears headed back to the Governor. When he first vetoed the bill in 2007 at the request of the State Police, the ACLU argued that he not only ignored the proposal’s beneficial impact on the state’s ongoing prison population crisis and deep fiscal problems, he closed his eyes to the severe and discriminatory impact of drug sentencing laws on the state’s African-American and Latino population. In his 2008 veto message, the Governor weakly argued that the bill interfered with the judiciary’s ability to impose an appropriate sentence, even though the Presiding Justice of the Superior Court had expressed support for the legislation. With this sensible legislation likely to be vetoed again, the RI ACLU will urge an override vote.
Human Trafficking (S 605/H 5661)
A human trafficking bill also passed with problematic, overly broad language. As defined, a now-unlawful “sexually-explicit performance” of a minor could have severe First Amendment implications for the art community. Under the new law, promoters of plays, music videos, performance art, etc. could all be subject to severe penalties merely if the performance “appeals to the prurient interests of patrons or viewers,” even though it need not be sexually explicit in any way. The ACLU is considering challenging the constitutionality of this law.
Prostitution (S 596/H 5044)
Capitulating to a strong push to close a so-called “loophole” in state law that made indoor prostitution legal, the General Assembly passed a bill that includes not only jail time for first-time offenders, but also a forfeiture provision that will deprive women of any monies or possessions derived from income earned as a prostitute, making it all that much harder for them to avoid recidivism. The ACLU and women's rights groups objected to the bill, noting that there were four felony statutes already on the books that allowed the police to arrest traffickers, pimps and any other individual profiting from prostitution, and that the only effect of “closing the loophole” will be to subject more women to arrest and prison time.
Costs for BCI Checks (H-5983, Article 11)
The ACLU testified against a budget article proposed by the Governor that would increase from $5 to $25 the cost for a criminal records check. The Affiliate noted that the number of occupations licensed or regulated by the state that require a BCI check continues to increase, and that they most often apply to low-paying and female-dominated jobs, like day care workers and nursing home employees. If the state feels it is important enough to have criminal record checks conducted on some job applicants, the ACLU argued that the state should at least be willing to pay for them. The proposed article was taken out of the budget.
Protection from Self-Incrimination (H-5039, S-416)
For almost a decade, the ACLU and the Public Defender successfully fought off a proposal to allow police officers to forcibly obtain blood samples from individuals involved in serious car accidents where there was a suspicion of DUI. The ACLU has objected that the forced taking of blood from a person for the purpose of using it as evidence against him or her is an unacceptable violation of the privilege against self-incrimination, and that proponents have been unable to point to any instances where lack of this power has hindered the state from obtaining drunk driving convictions. The bill perennially passed the Senate, only to die in the House. This year, however, with the addition of only minor amendments, the House has approved passage of the bill. It will likely soon be heading to the Governor for his signature.
Sex Offenders (S 930/H 6242, H 5749, H 5743)
On a positive note, the Assembly sent a package of sex offender legislation back to committee, killing the bills for the year. The bills included such “tough on crime” measures as making it a felony for offenders to ever enter schools, parks or similar locations; requiring them to wear a GPS monitoring device while challenging their administratively-designated level of dangerousness; and requiring landlords who had ever been convicted of sex offenses to report their sex offender status to tenants. The ACLU argued that such “tough on crime” legislation does little to protect people from sex crimes, and only makes it more difficult for a past offender to successfully reenter society.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Cyberstalking (H-5748, S-566)Died
Under a bill proposed by the Attorney General, any person who posts on a website opinions or information – even factual data – could be potentially subject to criminal charges if the posting is designed to “harass” and could cause a person “substantial emotional distress.” Thus, a website or blog designed to mock celebrities or to discredit a business because of poor service could place the poster in criminal jeopardy. At legislative hearings, the ACLU argued that the bill raised enormous First Amendment concerns and should be rejected. The bill died in committee.
Right to Strike (H-5232, S-658)Died
The ACLU testified against a bill that would authorize the license suspension of teachers who engage in a strike, defined so broadly as to include a teacher’s “abstaining” even in part “from the full performance of his or her duties in his or her normal manner without permission.” Noting that the definition “gives school administrators virtually carte blanche authority to punish selected teachers on a completely arbitrary basis,” the Affiliate further condemned another provision in the bill that put the burden in suspension hearings on the teacher “to demonstrate that he or she did not participate in a strike,” instead of requiring the school district to prove that the teacher did in fact engage in a strike. The bill died in committee.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Bills
Misc. LGBT Rights
The Affiliate has testified in favor of three bills that would expand the rights allotted to same-sex couples in the state – in divorce (S-271, H-5926), marriage (S-147, H-5744) and funeral arrangements (S-195, H-5294). Regrettably, when the session ends, Rhode Island will remain the only New England state to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples. Worse, it presently appears that no action will even be taken on legislation to allow couples living in Rhode Island who were validly-married in other states to get divorces here. The only positive action is on a bill, passed in slightly different form in both Houses, allowing domestic partners to plan the funeral arrangements for their deceased partner. Although the Governor vetoed this legislation, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for an override when they returned in January.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
E-Verify (S-306, H-5357)
The Senate thankfully did not vote on legislation that would require all non-governmental businesses to use the controversial and flawed E-Verify program to verify the work eligibility status of new hires. This spring, t he House had passed this bill for the third year running, and the Senate faced great pressure to pass it. Business, labor and community groups have testified against the legislation. In opposing the legislation, the ACLU pointed out that the program contains millions of database errors and has been found to increase workplace discrimination on the basis of national origin.
Interpreters (S-306, H-5357)
The Senate has passed ACLU-proposed legislation that would codify into state law a consent agreement between the Rhode Island Department of Human Services and the federal government requiring appropriate language interpreter services for DHS clients. As happened last year, the bill is currently stalled in the House Finance Committee despite not having any fiscal impact.
Medical Privacy Bills
HIV Testing (H-5415, S-245)
The Affiliate fought legislation to expand HIV testing while reducing the confidentiality protections in place for patients. At the end of the 2008 session, the legislature passed a bill forming a study commission to look into best practices for HIV testing. That commission met four times earlier this year.
Despite pressure from some in the medical community to significantly weaken the current state law’s informed consent and counseling requirements, the final version of the bill proposed by the commission – while not perfect – kept most of those key provisions intact. The bill is awaiting transmittal to the Governor.
Medical Marijuana (H-5359, S-185)
The House and Senate quickly and overwhelmingly overrode a Gubernatorial veto of legislation authorizing state-regulated dispensaries to provide medical marijuana to qualified patients. The ACLU testified in support of the bill. The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Thomas Slater, and establishes state-regulated compassion centers.
Open Government Bills
Open Records (H-5136, S-374)
The fate of a bill to strengthen the state’s open records law, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Michael Lenihan, remains up in the air. The bill, vetoed in 2008 by the Governor, was amended in numerous ways this year to address concerns raised by police chiefs and the Attorney General. The Affiliate, along with other open government groups, has been pushing for re-passage of a strong version of the bill. Among other things, the bill shortens the timeframe for public bodies to respond to open records requests and requires training of public information officers on their APRA obligations. An ACLU report issued in the fall of 2007, documenting widespread non-compliance with the statute, served as the impetus for this much-needed legislation.
Unfortunately, on the House floor, two important provisions in the bill were voted down, prompting the ACLU and other groups promoting the legislation to withdraw support for it. Efforts are underway to try to reinstate those provisions through another vote before the session ends.
Access to House and Senate Floors (H-5529, S-792)
Continuing an unfortunate trend over the years, the House of Representatives decided this session to further cut-off public access to the House floor before sessions begin. The effect of the change is to prevent both lobbyists and individual constituents from meeting with their representatives anywhere from 10-40 minutes before the start of session. This pre-session time is crucial because representatives are often hurrying off to committee meetings once the floor session is done. The Senate unfortunately followed suit with passage of a slightly less restrictive rule. The ACLU unsuccessfully testified against the changes.
Police Secrecy (H-6165)
After gutting the open records bill, the House added insult to injury by passing a bill that would keep secret, until the conclusion of grand jury proceedings, names of police officers involved in fatal shootings of civilians. The Affiliate is hopeful the bill, designed to overturn a 2007 ACLU court victory, will die in the Senate.
Administrative Subpoenas (H-6210)
The Senate steered clear of a troubling State Police proposal passed by the House. The bill would have given law enforcement agencies broad authority to secretly obtain, without a warrant, subscriber information from Internet service providers.
Radio Frequency ID (S-211, H-6059)
This legislation restricts governmental use of radio frequency identification devices on students. RFID allows a person’s identity and movement to be monitored electronically, and was briefly used by the Middletown school district last year to track elementary school students. The bill also keeps confidential any information gathered by a newly-installed RFID-driven E-ZPass toll payment system on the Pell Bridge. The legislative sponsors were Sen. Frank Ciccone and Rep. Lima. Although the Governor vetoed this bill, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for an override when they returned in January.
Political Surveillance (H-5172, S-153)
Rep. Rod Driver and Sen. Charles Levesque reintroduced ACLU-promoted legislation to restrict political surveillance and data collection by police. This is not an abstract problem in Rhode Island. For example, local police reported to federal authorities a planned peaceful demonstration outside the Army National Guard recruiting station in downtown Providence; information about the protest ended up in a Department of Defense “terrorism” database. And Woonsocket police were found to have run license plate numbers of cars that were in a parking lot where an event for a political candidate was being held. The bill died in committee.
Racial Profiling Bills
Comprehensive Racial Profiling Bill
Though it got a hearing in the House, neither chamber took action on comprehensive legislation, supported by the ACLU and a few dozen other organizations, designed to strengthen the state’s anti-racial profiling law The ACLU, the Urban League, PrYSM and other groups testified in support of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Joseph Almeida. As in past years, the State Police and the RI Police Chiefs Association expressed opposition to the bill, which would significantly strengthen the state’s current racial profiling law.
Among other things, the bill would require police to document the grounds for conducting car searches; limits the authority of police to demand identification from innocent passengers; bans so-called “pretext” stops; and reestablishes traffic stop data collection procedures.
An analysis of traffic stop data in Rhode Island has irrefutably shown that both blacks and Latinos are disproportionately stopped and searched by police in the state, even though they are less likely than whites to be found with contraband. Further, three out of four searches allegedly based on probable cause turn up no evidence of contraband. The ACLU believes passage of the bill is more urgent than ever, as racial profiling has only been exacerbated with some police departments now using traffic stops as an excuse to check into passengers’ immigration status.(S-155, H-5108). Read a summary of this bill.
“Primary Seat Belt” Law (H-5983, Article 18)
The House removed from the Governor’s proposed budget a provision that would have allowed police to pull cars over for seat belt violations. Although promoted as a safety measure, the State Police and the Department of Transportation decided to use the Governor’s budget this year as their vehicle to make seat belt use in the state a primary offense. Under current law, police can issue a seat belt ticket only if the driver has been pulled over for another reason. The ACLU testified that allowing police to pull over suspected seat belt violators will only increase the extent of racial profiling occurring in Rhode Island.
“Racial Profiling Awareness Month” (S-909, H-6192)
Though largely symbolic, the Senate passed a resolution declaring the month of May “Racial Profiling Awareness Month” to coincide with an effort by the bill’s supporters, including the Affiliate, to gather real-life stories from victims of racial profiling.
Students Rights Bills
School Uniforms (S-20)
Despite ACLU opposition, both the House and Senate have passed a bill authorizing Woonsocket schools to require students to wear school uniforms. Although school officials have touted the idea as a way to reduce school disciplinary problems, the ACLU noted that empirical evidence contradicts that notion.
In testimony before House and Senate committees, the ACLU further argued that compulsory school uniforms “promote a kind of regimentation and standardization that contradict the basic principles of individualism, free expression, and independent thinking” the school system should be encouraging.
Voting Rights Bills
Voter ID (H-5097)
The House has passed legislation to require photo identification of voters at the polls. The Affiliate and other civil rights groups lobbied against its passage. Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis has been a major proponent of the legislation.
Studies have shown that a voter ID requirement can serve as a poll tax, disenfranchising eligible voters and posing a particular burden on poor, elderly, disabled and minority voters who may not have the requisite ID or the ability to pay to obtain the necessary documents for one. The ACLU also charged that the bill was an attempt to “fix” a largely non-existent problem of alleged voter impersonation at the polls. The Affiliate is working in the Senate to keep this bill from passing.
Two separate pieces of voting rights legislation have been approved by the Senate. One would repeal the Board of Elections’ current exemption from the Administrative Procedures Act’s rule-making process requirements, making it easier for the public to provide input on the agency’s regulations (S-143). The other bill favorably addresses a variety of voting issues that have come up in previous elections, including standards for recounts and examining voter intent in disputed ballots (H-584/H-5326). The RI ACLU is working with sponsors Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Joshua Miller to get the bills through the House.
Ballot Access (S-203)
In response to the ACLU’s successful court case on behalf of the Moderate Party of RI, a bill was introduced to reduce from 5% to 1% the percentage of signatures required for a group to qualify for political party status. In late June, the bill passed the Senate, but no action has yet been taken on the House side.