2010 Legislative Session
Following a 2009 legislative session that nearly never ended, the Affiliate enjoyed some major victories right out of the gate this year. The General Assembly held a veto override session upon reconvening in January, and the result was passage of three civil liberties bills supported by the Affiliate. These wins, however, are not cause to relax and coast through the rest of the session. On the contrary, in light of the state’s dire fiscal situation and with election campaigns around the corner, there is a potential perfect storm brewing for legislators to look to “popular” anti-civil liberties initiatives for their campaigns.
As of mid-session, virtually no bills have been voted on by committees yet, making it impossible to gauge what the major civil liberties battles are likely to be. Legislators took an unexpected week off in March due to the flooding, and then the Senate’s rejection just before the break of the House’s “supplemental budget” bill caused another major setback to any timely approach to the session. The week before spring break has usually served as the deadline for most committee action, but as a result of these developments, it seems the Assembly is prepared to hold many hearings and votes well after the deadline. This is likely to lead to an even more hectic end to the session than usual. And though the House made fair progress in scheduling hearings, the Senate is lagging far behind.
Codifying Roe v. Wade Into State Law (H7756)
The RI ACLU and several women’s rights and reproductive rights groups testified in favor of a perennial bill introduced by Rep. Edie Ajello that was being heard for the first time in years. The legislation would reaffirm Roe v. Wade by codifying the principles of this landmark court case into state law.
Ultrasounds (H 7489)
At the same time, the ACLU and others testified in strong opposition to legislation that would require doctors to perform an ultrasound on a woman who has made the decision to abort and explain, in detail, information about the fetus. The bill violates doctors’ free speech rights by forcing them to give this irrelevant information to the woman, and is merely an attempt to harass women seeking to exercise their rights to an abortion.
Criminal Justice Bills
More than thirty House members are co-sponsoring a bill that, following in the footsteps of Massachusetts, would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The Affiliate will be lobbying in support of the legislation, which is also the subject of an ongoing Senate study commission.
In an effort to address a major human rights and civil liberties concern, Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Joanne Giannini are sponsoring legislation on behalf of the Affiliate, RI State Nurses Association and RI NOW to prohibit shackling or otherwise restraining incarcerated pregnant women during labor, delivery and post-recovery. It is unclear to what extent the State takes part in this practice as the Department of Corrections has thus far refused to release its policies on the subject. This preemptive legislation will ensure that the rights and dignity of pregnant women imprisoned at the ACI will not be violated.
DNA Testing of Arrestees. (S 2138/H 7186)
House and Senate committees heard testimony on dangerous legislation requiring the collection of DNA samples from any person arrested for a felony. Furthermore, if the arrestee is not convicted, the burden of having the sample expunged from a DNA database rests on the arrestee. The legislation undercuts the fundamental presumption of innocence underlying our criminal justice system, and its passage would mark an inevitable step towards creation of a national DNA database on every person. The Urban League of RI, the Public Defender and others also testified against the legislation, but bill sponsors are pushing for its passage. Read our testimony.
Internet Subpoenas (H 7775)
Ever since 9/11, the State Police have been fighting to enact a troubling proposal to give law enforcement broad authority to secretly obtain, without a warrant, subscriber information from Internet service providers. This year was no exception. The measure passed the House last year, but stalled in the Senate. The RI ACLU will continue to monitor and oppose it. Read our testimony.
Ignition Interlocks (S 2065/H 7111)
The Affiliate testified in opposition to bills that would eliminate judicial discretion and require installation of an ignition interlock on the vehicle owned by DUI offenders. The ACLU argued that the devices amount to an unfair burden on other drivers of the vehicle who have not violated the law, and that they are expensive to install and maintain.
Due Process Bills
Rights of Public Employees (H 7425)
This legislation, based on a federal law, would make it a felony for a public employee to “engage in any conduct that deprives the public of the intangible right of his or her honest services.” The term “honest services” is not defined, leaving it open to wide-ranging interpretations and subjecting every public employee and public official to serious criminal penalties for a variety of relatively innocuous conduct. This language is so broad, vague and open-ended that it allows for great prosecutorial mischief. Indeed, the sweep of this language is such that a public employee who leaves work fifteen minutes early has committed a felony subjecting him to ten years in prison. For these reasons, the ACLU strongly opposes the legislation. Read our testimony.
Casinos (H 6221, S 979)Passed
With table games legalized in Rhode Island, the General Assembly fast-tracked legislation overhauling the casino gaming statute and adding a number of new crimes, penalties, and regulations. In June, the ACLU testified that the bill (H 6221 as amended, S 979A as amended) carried a number of provisions seriously impacting the due process rights of patrons, including a provision that allowed casino employees to forcibly detain and question patrons suspected of violating gaming laws – essentially granting the employees police powers with immunity for their actions. That provision was stricken from the bill in acknowledgement of the ACLU’s concerns. Despite objections from the ACLU and many legislators, however, the bill was not amended to revise provisions imposing penalties of up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $100,000 for violating any broadly-worded gambling prohibitions, including one barring the possession of tape, dental floss or other items that could be used for cheating. Read our written testimony here.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Tuition Tax Credits (H 5397)
Budget Article 32 would double, from $1 million to $2 million, the tax credit program for businesses that make donations to “scholarship organizations” that funnel money to private and parochial schools for tuition purposes. At a time when public schools’ budgets across the state are being decimated, and this very same budget proposes to decimate them even more, it is unconscionable to be expanding the aid the state provides to private schools, even if done indirectly through a tax credit. Read our testimony.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Bills
Two major bills will be in play this year to support and legitimize the relationships of same-sex couples: one will allow them to marry, the other to divorce. The ACLU will be providing lobbying support to Marriage Equality RI, the single-issue coalition pressing for passage of an equal marriage bill. And odd as it may seem, there is real need for a law allowing Rhode Island‘s same-sex couples who have been lawfully married elsewhere to be able to divorce in their own state. A divided R.I. Supreme Court ruling in 2008 held that state law provided no right for such couples to obtain a divorce in Family Court, leaving these couples in an intolerable legal limbo. Read our testimony on H 7990 relating to same-sex divorce.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
Misc. Pro-Civil Liberties
Expect to see repeat legislation this year from Immigrants United (IU), a coalition of which the RI ACLU is an active member. IU’s legislative package consists of immigrant-friendly anti-discrimination bills dealing with everything from housing to workers’ rights to interpreter services. The interpreter bill would codify into state law an often-ignored consent agreement between the R.I. Department of Human Services and the federal government requiring appropriate language interpreter services for DHS clients. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Mary Ellen Goodwin, has died on the House side for two years running. The ACLU is hopeful that this is the year it will pass both Houses.
A new bill for 2010 – inspired in part by last year‘s close House vote on punitive E-Verify legislation – is one that prohibits forced employer participation in the E-Verify program. E-Verify is the federal government‘s faulty work authorization verification program; it contains millions of database errors and has been found to increase workplace discrimination on the basis of national origin. The proposed legislation (H 7527) , sponsored by Sen. Daniel Connors and Rep. Grace Diaz, would also codify into law federal standards that specify proper use of the program for voluntary users in an attempt to prevent abuses of the E-Verify system. It would also reverse Governor Carcieri’s executive order requiring all state contractors to participate in the system. This bill was heard at a hearing this spring.
E-Verify (S 2348, H 7296)
A perennial anti-immigrant bill, requiring all nongovernmental employers with more than two employees to enroll in and use the controversial federal E-Verify program, has had its hearing in the House. The E-Verify system is based on the Social Security Administration’s database that, by its own admission, contains 17.8 million errors. Furthermore, foreign-born lawful workers are more likely to be falsely identified as not eligible to work, leading to racial and ethnic discrimination. The hearing was well-attended by the opponents of the measure, including members of the Immigrants United coalition, and the ACLU will monitor the bill as the session continues.
Open Government Bills
For the third consecutive year, Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Michael Lenihan are sponsors of legislation that would strengthen the state‘s Access to Public Records Act in numerous ways. Among other things, the bill would shorten the timeframe for public bodies to respond to open records requests, increase penalties for violations of the law, and require training of public information officers on the obligations of public bodies under APRA. The bill passed both Houses in 2008, but was vetoed by the Governor. After passing the Senate last year, the bill got entangled in political maneuvering on the House side. The Affiliate is looking forward to a better outcome this session. Need for the bill is greater than ever, as problems with violation of the statute seem to remain virtually unchecked.
Family Court Records (H 7760)
ACLU attorneys who worked on the recently-filed truancy court lawsuit (see page 1) were stunned to find how difficult it was to obtain copies of their clients’ Family Court records. Despite having a signed authorization from the putative plaintiffs, the attorneys first had to obtain formal permission from the Chief Judge to view the records. Even with that authorization, the attorneys were told they could only inspect the documents at the clerk’s office, and could not make copies.
A bill introduced by Rep. Michael Marcello would address this problem by explicitly authorizing parents and their attorneys the right to review and copy these files. The ACLU testified in support of the bill at a recent hearing.
School Committee Meeting Notices
Several bills have been heard this year that attempt to ease the purported financial burden on school departments in paying for school committee meeting notice ads in the newspaper. Many of the bills would allow school committees to post notices of their meetings on the web in lieu of placing newspaper advertisements. However, the ACLU and others have argued this fails to acknowledge the still-present “digital divide” between households with Internet access and those without.
This year the ACLU is working to amend a less-problematic alternative bill that would expand the types of newspapers that would be allowed to print the advertisements.
Police Practices Bills
Police Ticket Quotas
In an effort to join with a dozen other states that already have laws to this effect, the Affiliate is introducing legislation this year that will prohibit police departments from instituting quotas, or a set number of tickets, arrests and investigatory stops an officer must meet within a certain timeframe. Sen. Daniel Connors and Rep. Patrick O‘Neill are sponsoring the legislation, which was prompted by the ACLU‘s discovery last year that the Hopkinton police department had implemented a traffic ticket quota requirement for its officers.
In 2008, the legislature authorized broad-based medical testing of newborns. Rather than being limited to tests for disorders that are treatable in infancy or early childhood and for which there is a medical benefit to early detection, the law authorized non-consensual testing for any “other conditions.” This year Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Sen. Susan Sosnowski are sponsoring an ACLU bill to fine-tune the statute, requiring a medical benefit and known treatment before “other conditions” can be screened for. The current language allows all kinds of tests to be performed, including, for example, predictive genetic testing for disorders that a person might be at risk for and develop much later in life. Performing such testing raises profound ethical and civil liberties concerns, and the proposed bill is de-signed to prevent those scenarios from occurring.
Political Surveillance (H 7343)
Rep. Rod Driver and Sen. Charles Levesque have reintroduced ACLU-promoted legislation to restrict political surveillance and data collection by police. This is not an abstract problem in Rhode Island. Just a few years ago local police reported to federal authorities a planned peaceful demonstration out-side the Army National Guard recruiting station in downtown Providence; information about the protest ended up in a Department of Defense “terrorism” data-base. 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. Read our testimony.
Social Security Number Privacy
For over thirty years, a federal statute has made it unlawful (though admittedly with many exceptions) for any “federal, state or local government agency to deny to any individual any right, benefit, or privilege provided by law because of such individual’s refusal to disclose his or her social security number.” Incredibly, in a feat of legal legerdemain, some courts have recently ruled that, despite the clear language of the provision, the restriction applies only to federal agencies. Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Deborah Ruggiero have introduced a version of the federal law that would explicitly require state and municipal agencies in Rhode Island to abide by that statute‘s important privacy protections. The General Assembly took no action on the bill last year after state agencies decried the restriction.
Red Light Cameras
Newly-seated Rep. Scott Slater will be leading the way with legislation that not only re-peals the state’s “red light camera” law, which only got the “green light” a few years ago with legislative approval, but also prohibits any future use of automated speed or traffic light enforcement. The ACLU has argued that the cameras violate the privacy and due process rights of motorists. In addition, studies have shown that red light cameras, despite being touted as promoting traffic safety, can actually cause more accidents than they prevent.
Welfare Drug Testing/Fingerprinting (H 7733/H 7657)
Legislation to stigmatize and humiliate the poor — by requiring welfare applicants to be drug-tested and fingerprinted — was the subject of recent hearings. The ACLU and others raised a host of constitutional, fiscal and public policy concerns about the bills. Fortunately, there appeared to be little interest in the proposals from committee members.
Criminal Record Checks (H 7754)
The ACLU testified against a bill greatly expanding the scope of criminal record checks performed on Department of Children, Youth and Families employees and volunteers. Under the DCYF legislation, job applicants would undergo fingerprinting and a nationwide criminal check, which they would have to pay for. In addition, current employees’ past criminal records would be randomly checked and could lead to discipline and termination, no matter how long ago or how irrelevant the record. Further, unlike similar laws on the books which allow the employer only to learn if a person’s record includes a “disqualifying” offense, this bill gives DCYF access to the entire criminal record, including arrests not followed by convictions. Read our testimony.
Racial Profiling Bills
Racial Profiling (S 2208/H 7112)
Introduced for the past several years, the Affiliate will continue to push for strengthened racial profiling legislation, sponsored by Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Joseph Almeida. Analysis of three years’ worth of state-wide traffic stop statistics has consistently shown that blacks and Hispanics are twice as likely as whites to be stopped and searched by police, but less likely to be found with contraband. The comprehensive bill that has been proposed improves current anti-racial profiling law by addressing three major areas of concern: traffic stops, juveniles and immigrants. Among its many provisions, the bill would prevent police from demanding identification from innocent passengers and from searching minors in the absence of suspicion of criminal activity, require police to document the grounds for conducting searches, and reestablish traffic stop data collection procedures. Read a summary of the bill.
This spring, the House Judiciary Committee held a long but generally positive hearing on Rep. Joseph Almeida’s comprehensive anti-racial profiling bill. Advocates came out in droves to support the measure which would codify basic police best practices that would be beneficial to all Rhode Islanders, not only the minority population. The Campaign Against Racial Profiling, a coalition made up of dozens of community organizations, has implemented an aggressive lobbying strategy this session in hopes of making this the year that the 5-year-old bill passes.
Primary Seat Belt Law (S 2308/H 7085)
The Senate heard testimony on a recurring piece of legislation that would allow police to pull cars over solely for seat belt violations. Under current law, police can issue a seat belt ticket only if the driver has been pulled over for another reason. The ACLU and others testified that allowing police to pull over suspected seat belt violators will only increase the extent of racial profiling occurring in Rhode Island. Read our testimony.
Voting Rights Bills
Rhode Island’s 2006 elections highlighted significant election law problems generated by restrictive Board of Elections’ policies. Although the problems were not as pronounced in 2008, the agency’s regulations continue to substantially and unfairly limit the counting of provisional ballots and the rights of candidates to contest disputed ballots during recounts of close elections. Hoping to forestall similar problems in the up-coming election year, the ACLU has reintroduced a bill, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Joshua Miller, designed to clarify the election statutes and strengthen the franchise in Rhode Island.
Voter ID (S 2141/H 7388)
The Affiliate and other civil rights groups testified against legislation that would require voters to show identification at the polls. 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 is an attempt to “fix” a non-existent problem of alleged voter impersonation at the polls. Though the bill did pass the House last year, the Affiliate is hopeful that it will die in committee this time around.