Winter 2018 - an ACLU of Rhode Island Newsletter

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Winter 2018 Newsletter

Volume: XXIV, Issue Number: 5

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Newsletter Contents

COURT RULES FAVORABLY AFTER ACLU FILES BRIEF SUPPORTING WAIVER OF FEES FOR GOOGLE SETTLEMENT RECORDS

R.I. Superior Court Judge Melissa Long ruled that the Attorney General (AG) must waive fees for any documents that are delivered as part of State Rep. Patricia Morgan’s request for public records related to the AG’s expenditure of $50M in funds from the settlement of a lawsuit against Google.  The ruling came after the ACLU filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the waiver.  At the time of the filing, Rep. Morgan had already been charged more than $3,700 for partial release of the records, some of which were heavily redacted.  The request for the fee waiver was for an additional $4,000 that the AG was demanding in order to fulfill the rest of Rep. Morgan’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request. Citing an inherent public interest in the records, Judge Long agreed with the ACLU in rejecting the AG’s argument that records requestors should have to prove financial hardship in order to have fees waived.

Prior to this, the ACLU had issued a critical 10-page analysis of the AG’s response to Rep. Morgan’s APRA request.  The analysis took issue with the extensive redactions of documents provided and the exorbitant fees charged by the Attorney General, and highlighted the need for legislation to strengthen the open records law.

Among the APRA amendments suggested by the ACLU analysis were ones creating a presumption of waiving charges for record requests that are in the public interest; barring public bodies from charging for time spent redacting records; and requiring that a specific exemption be cited with each redaction.

“JUSTICE DE-INVESTMENT” AT THE STATEHOUSE

Despite legislation enacted in 2017 aimed at promoting criminal justice reform, the RI General Assembly’s 2018 session took significant steps back from a “smart justice” approach by adding more than a dozen new felonies to the books and increasing sentences for several other crimes.

This expansion of the “Statehouse-to-prison pipeline” was the disappointing finding of an ACLU update to an extensive analysis of RI lawmaking on criminal justice issued earlier this year. That earlier report documented the problems of mass incarceration and overcriminalization resulting from the state’s routine passage of laws that create new crimes and increase sentences to existing crimes – without any analysis to support the expansions.  The new report found a return to those ways, with legislative action in 2018 adding to “the ongoing upward trend of creating new crimes, adding harsher sentences, and sending more and more people to prison…”  The report concludes with a plea to RI lawmakers to make good in 2019 on the promises of “justice reinvestment,” rather than continue with an ineffective and expensive approach to criminal justice. The ACLU report can be found on our website.

ACLU ACTS ON SCHOOL BUS STRIKE

Among those affected by the recent Providence school bus strike were students with disabilities, many of whom couldn’t get to school. During the strike, school officials repeatedly said they were powerless to do anything for these 1,000 or so students, and only offered to provide families travel reimbursement that they might wait weeks or months to receive. But that arrangement didn’t work for many low-income parents without the funds to pay transportation costs up front, or whose children had disabilities that require specialized transportation.

After receiving multiple complaints from parents of students with disabilities that transportation alternatives were not being offered, the ACLU, R.I. Legal Services, and the R.I. Disability Law Center sent a letter to Providence school officials, outlining a number of steps for the school district to take to fulfill its legal obligations to special education students. The school district responded by doubling down on its position that since it couldn’t provide transportation to all special education students, it would provide it to none.  The hands off, one-size-fits-all approach of the district prompted the advocacy groups to file a series of administrative complaints with the RI Department of Education seeking legal remedies for affected students and their families.

Specifically, the legal actions sought to force the Providence school district to comply with these students’ special education plans that explicitly obligate the district to provide their transportation to school.  The complaints also encompassed students with disabilities who attend school outside the state capital, but who lost their transportation because their buses originated in Providence.  As a result of the legal actions, many issues were favorably addressed, and the districts notified parents and caregivers of their rights to prompt reimbursement and compensatory education for class time missed. The ACLU continues to monitor the district to ensure compliance with their obligations.

IN MEMORIAM: Belle Pellegrino

Belle A. Pellegrino, 74, of Providence, passed away in December. She was born in Providence and served in the Marine Corps. She was a courageous plaintiff in the ACLU of RI’s successful lawsuit in 1976 allowing the first Providence gay pride parade to take place after the city’s police chief barred it. Belle once said: “If we had not had the ACLU, there would not be a Pride Fest. We wouldn’t be in the State House fighting for marriage equality; we’d still be trying to fight to get the first pride parade.” She will be remembered for her kindness, love and acceptance of all those she touched.

RECENT NEWS

RIDOT Stops Blocking Twitter Critics After ACLU Steps In

ACLU legal action was recently averted when RIDOT stopped blocking critics from its twitter account, @RIDOTNews. The agency halted the practice after the ACLU reminded RIDOT of its free speech obligations.  The ACLU sent a letter to the agency after receiving a complaint from a Twitter user who was blocked after posting tweets criticizing a RIDOT project near his residence. The letter emphasized “the important role that social media now play in democratic discourse. Their use to speak out on public matters and to petition the government for redress of grievances is protected by the First Amendment.”

Just Don’t Do It: North Smithfield Initially Passes… then Promptly Rescinds… Anti-Nike Resolution

Following heavy pushback from the ACLU on First Amendment grounds, the North Smithfield Town Council rescinded a resolution calling on the Town’s school committee and municipal departments to ban the purchase of Nike products. The resolution was an effort to punish Nike for its high-profile ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback who knelt in protest of racial injustice during the National Anthem. The resolution was rescinded one week after the Council passed it on a 3-2 vote that was also heavily criticized by local residents.

Groups Urge Repeal of Central Falls Curfew Ordinance

Seeking to address the issue well before spring, the ACLU and Progreso Latino sent a letter to Central Falls officials urging repeal of the City’s juvenile curfew law. In the letter, the groups make the case for repealing the law on a number of grounds, most notably that curfews don’t reduce crime and may undermine public safety. The letter was prompted by publication of a recent national article documenting the failure of such laws across the country.  City officials’ expressed interest in justice reform.

DOH Background Check Rules Criticized

Eight state-based and national advocacy organizations sharply criticized the RI Department of Health (DOH) for a “disturbing trend” of “undermining…criminal justice reform by increasing the barriers for people with past criminal records or substance use disorders to obtain professional licensing.” In a letter to the Department, the groups noted several recent DOH rule enactments that allow for the disqualification of people with any criminal record from obtaining professional licenses in a number of fields – ranging from EMTs to midwives to physical therapy assistants. The ACLU is participating in a legislative campaign to undo the rules.

ACLU Sues Pawtucket Police Again for Shielding Records of Police Misconduct

For the second time in a year, the ACLU of RI has sued the Pawtucket Police for violating their obligations under the state’s open records law (APRA).  The Department again denied an APRA request, filed by a government accountability group known as APRA Watch, for copies of final reports of investigations of alleged police misconduct generated by the Department’s Internal Affairs Division.  The denial came despite a pending ACLU lawsuit against the Department on virtually identical grounds and despite past RI Supreme Court rulings supporting the public’s access to these types of records.

ACLU Settles Lawsuit Preserving Shelter Access for Homeless Ex-Offender

The ACLU has settled the “Harrington Hall lawsuit” ensuring that no shelter operating on State property will have to turn away those seeking a bed when one is available.  The settlement ended a lawsuit originally filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Lynette Labinger and John MacDonald, challenging a state law that limited the number of registered sex offenders that could stay at Harrington Hall to 10% of the shelter’s population (which amounts to 11 beds). The lawsuit noted that the facility “routinely provided overnight shelter to many more than 11 registered sex offenders” without experiencing any crime problems. Under the settlement agreement, providers will not be deemed to have exceeded the limitations so long as the shelter operator reports to the local police the names of the individuals being housed overnight and concludes that no other shelters are available.  The settlement coincides with public outcry involving another registered sex offender, Richard Gardner, recently released from prison after serving 30 years.  Upon Gardner’s move to the Washington Park neighborhood in Providence, the ACLU and other groups emphasized the harms generated by state laws related to the sex-offender registry and residency restrictions.

ACLU Sues N. Smithfield Police for Placing Resident in Danger by Falsely Labeling Him Unstable

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a North Smithfield resident, challenging the police department’s refusal to remove from its files an internal note which falsely claims that the plaintiff is “psychologically unstable” and has numerous weapons at his house. Police officials acknowledged that they had no basis for the claims in the note, which was uncovered while the ACLU was litigating another pending lawsuit on behalf of the town resident, Jason Richer. Filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman, the lawsuit expresses concern for Richer’s safety because of the false information in his police file. The purpose of such notes is to alert police officers of possible dangers when they interact with individuals. 

RECENT EVENTS

2018 ANNUAL MEETING

A huge thank you to everyone who joined us on Thursday, October 25th for our Annual Meeting. This year's meeting honored Planned Parenthood of Southern New England as the Raymond J. Pettine Civil Libertarian of the Year. Members and guests enjoyed drinks, hors d'oeuvres, and each other's conversation as they joined together to celebrate the year in civil liberties. The crowd also heard from ACLU volunteer attorneys and a few of our plaintiffs about some of 2018's most noteworthy cases.

WRITERS READ BANNED BOOKS

In honor of Banned Books Week 2018, on September 26th, we invited local authors and artists to read from their favorite banned books! Participants included Mike Stanton, Michael Willhoite, Mary Capello, Jean Walton, Eleni Sikelianos, Rick Moody and Adam Braver.