Rhode Island Affiliate, American Civil Liberties Union

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2006 Legislative Session

When the gavel finally banged down at 4:26 AM on Saturday morning, June 24th, one of the toughest and most grueling sessions for civil liberties in some time finally came to a close. But despite a few significant defeats, a handful of important Affiliate initiatives also made it into law, and the ACLU’s presence helped sidetrack a number of dangerous bills.

In 2006 the Affiliate lobbied on more than 100 bills, so the summary that follows is far from complete. Nonetheless, it should provide readers a good idea of the broad scope of the Affiliate’s legislative activities this session. Members wishing more information about any of the bills discussed here should feel free to contact the office.

Legislation ›

First Amendment Rights

Political Spying: After a vigorous and spirited debate, the House approved on a 36-25 vote a bill sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello, that would have restricted state and local police from collecting or maintaining information about the political associations or activities of individuals. Unfortunately, the bill died in Senate committee without a hearing, largely due to forceful State Police opposition. The bill followed on the heels of revelations that the protests of a Providence peace group were kept in a Department of Defense “terrorism” database (see related story, page 1), and that the Providence Police Department obtained $100,000 in federal homeland security money for police officers to attend a training on how to “handle” protests and “civil actions.” The ACLU plans to resubmit the legislation in 2007.
Action Alert for this Legislation

Internet Subpoenas: ACLU lobbying helped to decisively kill one of the most dangerous bills of the session, a pet proposal of the State Police to give law enforcement broad authority to secretly obtain subscriber information, including bank and credit card numbers, from Internet service providers without a warrant. The bill has regularly passed the Senate in past years, only to die in the House, but this year it seemed poised for approval by both Houses. But after the ACLU publicized the fact that the bill was so broadly worded it would allow police access to telephone customer calling records – the same information that had created a scandal at the federal level with revelations about telephone company collaboration with the National Security Agency – an uproar ensued. The result: the House quickly shelved the bill and encouraged all parties to try to work out compromise language for next session.
RI ACLU's Memo on Internet Subpoenas

Ballot Referenda Campaigns: Prompted by an ACLU lawsuit, the General Assembly has completely revamped the state’s campaign finance law as it relates to ballot question advocacy. The new law removes a number of unconstitutional provisions that the ACLU recently challenged successfully (see story, page 2), as well as a particularly onerous provision that the court had upheld: requiring all ballot question contributions to be funneled through political action committees. The revised statute, drafted with extensive ACLU involvement, should encourage more active public participation in ballot campaigns.

Tuition Tax Credits: In a disturbing development, the 2007 budget includes $1 million in tax breaks to businesses making donations to scholarship organizations that provide financial aid to students attending private and parochial schools. This back-door tuition tax credit scheme was condemned by the Affiliate and teachers’ unions, but after years of languishing in Finance Committee, the proposal was included in the 2007 budget bill and passed overwhelmingly. The timing of its approval was especially ironic, given budget cuts this year for children on health care and the decline of anticipated state aid for public education in a number of municipalities.

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Civil Rights

Racial Profiling: No action was taken on an ACLU bill designed to address the state’s racial profiling problem; among other things, the bill would have strengthened the remedies available to victims and required continued data collection of traffic stops by police. At the same time, the State Police and the Department of Transportation were stymied in their push to make seat belt use in the state a primary offense. The ACLU, the Urban League and other community groups have strongly opposed that effort, arguing that allowing police to pull over suspected seat belt violators will only exacerbate racial profiling by law enforcement agencies.

Health Care for Immigrants: The Governor’s callous budget proposal, opposed by the ACLU, to cut approximately 4,000 undocumented children off the RIte Care health insurance rolls met with only partial success. In a compromise, the new budget bars any additional undocumented children from entering the system beginning January 1.

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RFID Tags: For the second year in a row, the Governor has vetoed an important privacy bill that would restrict the state and municipalities from making use of “radio frequency identification” technology to track students, employees or clients. These electronic chips allow people’s identity and movement to be monitored electronically. While the RFID technology has been employed to track cattle and commerce, the privacy implications of its use on people are unsettling. The Affiliate will be encouraging the legislature to override the Governor’s veto. The bills were sponsored by Rep. Charlene Lima and Sen. Frank Ciccone III.

Tax Returns: Tucked away at the very end of a 70-page budget article was a paragraph making available to certain legislative fiscal advisors “information that the tax administrator may consider proper” contained in tax returns filed by any “individual or entity that requests legislation benefiting that individual or entity.” After the ACLU objected to the enormous breadth of the proposal, House leaders removed the provision from the budget.

Red Light Cameras: Last year, Providence city officials persuaded the General Assembly to approve a bill authorizing the installation of automated “red light cameras,” but only after accepting a bevy of ACLU amendments designed to mitigate some of the privacy and due process concerns they raise. Significantly, a three-year sunset clause was included in the law. However, on the last day of this year’s session, Providence Rep. John McCauley tried to get the sunset clause repealed. In a matter of hours, the bill was heard by, and reassigned to, two different committees, until it was finally sent to the floor for a vote. Thanks to a concentrated Affiliate lobbying effort, the full House took no vote on the bill. The ACLU pointed out to legislators serious questions about the cameras’ effectiveness, and noted that the purpose of the sunset clause was to give officials the opportunity to review data after a few years of their use.

Telephone Records: In response to media stories about the brokering of telephone records, the General Assembly has enacted a law that significantly restricts the procurement or sale of telephone records without the customer’s consent. This privacy legislation originally contained a broad exemption for law enforcement agencies, but an amendment proposed by the ACLU to generally bar police access without a court order or warrant was approved.

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Workplace Rights

Lie Detectors: The Senate took no action on a House-passed bill, pushed by the State Police, to allow police agencies to give lie detector tests to job applicants. Rhode Island’s ban on the use of polygraph tests in employment has been in effect for over 40 years, and evidence of their scientific validity has not improved since then. The ACLU has been instrumental over the years in strengthening the remedies available to applicants and employees for violations of the ban.

DCYF Background Checks: Legislative committees took no action on DCYF legislation that would have given the agency and licensed day care providers direct access to job applicants’ entire criminal history, including records of arrests not followed by convictions. Presently, day care employers learn from police only if an applicant has been convicted of statutorily-specified “disqualifying offenses.” The ACLU argued that the legislation undermined the carefully-crafted process currently in place to weed out only those job applicants with questionable backgrounds.

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Criminal Justice

Sex Offenders: Joining a nationwide chorus, the General Assembly passed harsh, costly and almost-certainly ineffective legislation to further punish sex offenders. Specifically, legislation enacted into law this session will subject certain sex offenders to lifetime active GPS monitoring. Proponents offered no information as to either the effectiveness or the ultimate fiscal cost of the measure. They did, however, cite the NBC show Dateline for support.

However, things could have been worse. Legislation authorizing the state to initiate civil commitment proceedings against sex offenders shortly before their release from prison, in order to allow for their continued, and potentially indefinite, incarceration, never made it out of committee. Earlier in the session, the bill’s sponsor and committee chair suggested passage was inevitable. The bill had met with strong opposition from many professional mental health organizations.

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Open Government

Administrative Procedures Act: The Senate killed an ACLU bill, passed by the House and sponsored by Rep. Fausto Anguilla, repealing an exemption for the Board of Elections from the law that requires state agencies to go through a public rule-making process before adopting regulations. The Board is the only major state agency with such an exemption, and the agency succeeded in convincing Senators to keep it that way.

Open Meetings: The ACLU succeeded in significantly restricting the reach of a bill allowing people with disabilities who serve on public bodies to participate in public meetings by telephone. As originally drafted, the bill essentially allowed any public official claiming to have a disability to make use of this new opportunity. Only a year ago, the Affiliate successfully lobbied for passage of a bill that generally banned telephone meetings of public bodies. As redrafted and approved by the legislature, the bill authorizes phone participation only when the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities formally certifies the disability and determines that no other reasonable accommodation is available. School District Improvement Teams: Following ACLU objections, the Senate recommitted a bill that would have allowed school district improvement teams to meet in private and without any public notice. The Affiliate argued that there was no compelling reason for granting the teams a special exemption from the open meetings law.

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Drunk Driving

Ignoring Affiliate objections that the bill would significantly erode the privilege against self-incrimination, the General Assembly has made it a crime for a driver to refuse to submit to a breathalyzer test if he or she has been cited once before for not taking the test. The bill was pushed along by media reports that Rhode Island’s drunk driving fatality rate is the highest in the country. Earlier this year, the ACLU released a detailed report debunking these reports as myth, but it had little effect in stopping this problematic bill. Legislators were a little more cautious in dealing with other troubling drunk driving measures. Mirroring its position in past years, the House took no action on Senate legislation allowing for the forced administration of blood tests on persons involved in vehicular accidents involving death or serious injury. And, after House Judiciary Committee initially approved a bill requiring all twice-convicted drunk drivers to have an ignition interlock system installed on their cars (at the cost of almost $2,000 a year), and further requiring the offender’s driver’s license to contain a notation to that effect, the House had the bill recommitted for further study. And finally, though not directly related to driving, the Affiliate succeeded in scaling back a bill that would have made it a crime for a teenager to fail to stop other underage minors from drinking.

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Students' Rights

“Zero Tolerance”: An ACLU bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Issa, that would require schools to take a case-by-case approach in determining the appropriate discipline for students charged with drug, alcohol or weapons violations, passed the Senate but died in the House. The bill, designed to address inflexible school district “zero tolerance” policies, was supported by the state Department of Education, but opposed by the teachers’ unions.

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Medical Privacy

HIV Names Reporting: At present, health care providers are required to report the names of patients with AIDS, but not those who are only HIV-positive. However, as a condition of receiving significant federal dollars for AIDS prevention and treatment, states have been told that they must begin reporting the names of HIV-positive patients as well. When the R.I. Department of Health introduced legislation to implement this new directive, the ACLU worked with the Department to put into place strong confidentiality safeguards in the revised law to the extent allowable by the new federal mandate. Among other things, the new statute guarantees that anonymous testing will remain available, and ensures that any name reporting is prospective only.

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Gay and Lesbian Rights

Domestic Partner Benefits: Although proponents of same-sex marriage legislation were disappointed not to get a committee vote this year, the General Assembly did pass laws to benefit domestic partners. The legislature overwhelmingly approved an ACLU bill, sponsored by Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Gordon Fox, specifying that domestic partner health insurance benefits are not taxable income for state income tax purposes, and explicitly entitling state employees and their partners to the protections of COBRA and to the state’s Family Medical Leave Act. And in separate action, the legislature approved a bill allowing domestic partners to receive the death benefits of police officers or firefighters killed in the line of duty.

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Rights of Prisoners

Prison Phone Calls: A new law, promoted by the ACLU and sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Charles Levesque, will limit the phone call charges that can be imposed on inmates. For years, families of ACI inmates have faced an enormous hardship in keeping in touch with their loved ones because of exorbitant commissions and charges imposed on the collect calls that inmates must make to reach anybody on their phone list. The Department of Corrections’ contract with the current prison telephone provider expires next year, and upon its expiration, the new law will eliminate all special surcharges and allow prisoners to pay for calls with debit cards.

Mental Health Petitions: The ACLU, the R.I. Disability Law Center and the R.I. Council of Community Mental Health Organizations helped persuade the Governor to veto a bill that would have allowed the Mental Health Advocate to petition the court to involuntarily transfer inmates from the ACI to the custody of MHRH. The groups complained that the legislation did not address how inmates who wanted to challenge the proposed transfer would be represented, since the Advocate is the entity designated by law to represent them. The groups also objected to the bill’s failure to give inmates themselves the opportunity to petition for a transfer. In vetoing the bill, the Governor joined in the objections to the conflict of interest problems raised by the bill.

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Listed below are a few other bills of civil liberties interest reviewed in prior newsletters that did not make it out of committee this session:

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