Rhode Island Affiliate, American Civil Liberties Union

Past Sessions  ›      

2007 Legislative Session

In 2007 the Affiliate lobbied on more than 100 bills, so the summary that follows is far from complete, and does not include the many bills that died early in the session. Nonetheless, it should provide readers a good idea of the broad scope of the Affiliate’s legislative activities during the 2007 session. Members wishing more information about any of the bills discussed here should feel free to contact the office.

Legislation ›


Juvenile Justice

Only two significant bills opposed by the ACLU became law during the 2007 session, but they both involved juvenile justice and targeted the state’s youth in an extremely punitive fashion.

Juveniles in Adult Court: The ACLU and children’s rights advocates were shocked when the House Finance Committee passed out a budget that retained a proposal from the Governor and DCYF to treat all 17 year olds as adults for criminal purposes. Based on a claim that transferring these juveniles out of Family Court and the Training School and into adult court and the “less expensive” ACI would save the state $3.6 million, the General Assembly ultimately approved this regressive measure despite an intensive lobbying effort launched by the Affiliate, R.I. Kids Count and other organizations. On the last day of the session, with active involvement of Senate Finance Committee chair Stephen Alves, the organizations persuaded the Senate to undo the change by unanimously passing a measure that would have set a cap on the population of the Training School, and required use of diversionary programs and the implementation of a risk assessment instrument to keep out of the Training School juveniles who didn’t belong there in the first place. The Senate agreed that these changes would more than make up for the budget provision’s purported $3.6 million in savings, but the House refused to budge and took no action on the measure.

The ACLU and the other organizations involved in this effort have not given up, and are continuing to urge lawmakers to repeal the law if they come back into session later this summer to consider veto overrides. The Affiliate has since uncovered independent information showing that housing juveniles at the ACI will actually cost more than the Training School. Passage of the law also bucks a trend across the country of reducing the number of juveniles sent to adult court in recognition that it is poor public policy and creates more recidivism. In fact, only last month Connecticut legislators restored juvenile court jurisdiction until the age of 18. Rhode Island is now one of only a dozen states that treats 17 year olds in this fashion.

Drag Racing: In response to a tragic incident where a teenager was killed in a drag race, the General Assembly approved an Attorney General bill that sets steep criminal penalties for this practice. The Affiliate decried the measure – which will inevitably affect teenagers almost exclusively – for containing draconian penalties that are much more severe than the penalties on the books for more serious driving misconduct often committed by adults. To give just one example: mere street racing with a passenger in the motor vehicle – without any accident or other endangering behavior – will now carry a five year prison sentence. However, an adult who drives drunk with a child 13 years or younger in the car faces a maximum one year penalty under current law!

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First Amendment Rights

The First Amendment emerged unscathed through the 2007 legislative session.

Political Phone Calls: The House took no action on a constitutionally- suspect Senate bill that would have made it a crime to make a recorded political phone call to any person who had asked to be placed on a “do not call” list. The bill’s restrictions on political phone calls were greater than those in place in state law for commercial phone call solicitations, thus raising basic First Amendment concerns.

Sacramental Wine: Another constitutionally questionable bill that passed the House but died in the Senate would have created a special class of liquor license strictly for the sale of sacramental wine, and only “to any duly ordained priest, minister or rabbi or to any church or religious society.” The Affiliate raised concerns about the entanglement between church and state that such a license would cause.

The “Easter Bunny” Bill: Representative Richard Singleton made it his personal crusade to “save” the Easter Bunny this year after the Tiverton School Department’s superintendent decided to use the more culturally sensitive name of Peter Rabbit for an appearance by a large bunny at a public school craft fair. The legislator’s bill would have prohibited cities and towns from “altering the name or concept of any religious or secular holiday or secular figure or symbol associated with any such holiday.” The ACLU pointed out that, if passed, the legislation would bar municipal bodies from displaying Christmas trees since they are an “alteration” of a pagan winter solstice symbol! The Affiliate also testified that, among its many other flaws, the bill would place an enormous burden on municipalities, which would be required to research the earliest origins of holidays and their symbols before mentioning, depicting or celebrating them. The R.I. League of Cities and Towns joined the Affiliate in testifying against the bill. To its shame, the House approved this bill late on the final day of the session, but the Senate wisely took no action on it.

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Racial Profiling

A major disappointment of 2007 was the failure of the House or Senate to take any action on comprehensive legislation, supported by a coalition of more than 40 organizations organized by the Affiliate, designed to address the problem of racial profiling. Introduced by Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Joseph Almeida, the bill responded to a series of recent highly-publicized incidents in the state as well as statistical data documenting continued and significant racial disparities in police traffic stops and searches. Among other things, 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. The R.I. Police Chiefs Association and the R.I. State Police lobbied against the bill, which the Affiliate will be actively promoting in 2008.

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Open Government

One of the ACLU’s successes in 2007 was the passage of a bill amending the Administrative Procedures Act, an important statute that requires the opportunity for public input during the rulemaking proceedings of most state agencies. The Affiliate bill, sponsored by Rep. Donna Walsh and Sen. Daniel Connors, addresses “loopholes” in the law that some agencies have used to make it difficult for the public to provide meaningful input on proposed rules. Among the practices that the new law prohibits is that of agencies issuing proposed “revisions” of lengthy regulations without giving the public any indication of the actual changes that have been made.

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Students’ Rights

“Zero Tolerance”: The General Assembly overwhelmingly approved an ACLU bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Issa and Rep. Anastasia Williams, to require schools to take a caseby- case approach in determining the appropriate discipline for students charged with drug, alcohol or weapons violations. The bill, which effectively wipes out so-called “zero tolerance” policies in effect in many school districts, was supported by the Department of Education, as well as by the state branch of the National Education Association which had opposed the bill in the past. Implementation of “zero tolerance” policies has required ACLU intervention in literally dozens of cases over the years, including the suspension of two first graders for bringing a toy ray gun to school, the suspension of a kindergartner for having a plastic butter knife in his lunch bag and, most recently, the attempted censorship of a high school yearbook photo because the student was wearing medieval attire and a prop broadsword.

Dating Violence: The legislature approved requiring public schools to educate students about, and respond to incidents of, “dating violence,” but only after the bill was amended at the ACLU’s request. The amendments clarify that school discipline policies addressing such conduct will apply only to incidents occurring on school grounds or at school functions, not private disputes between students. The amendments, offered by Sen. Charles Levesque, represent the latest in a series of Affiliate activities designed to limit school efforts to expand their disciplinary reach to students’ off-campus conduct in a variety of contexts.

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Technological Privacy

Internet Subpoenas: Basic privacy rights were protected for another year, thanks to ACLU lobbying that helped bottle up in committee a perennial State Police proposal to give law enforcement officials broad authority to secretly obtain, without a warrant or even a showing of “probable cause,” subscriber calling records and financial information from telephone and Internet service providers. The bill has passed the Senate in past years, only to die in the House. Revelations at the federal level regarding the National Security Agency telephone spying scandal made even the Senate wary of passing the legislation this year. Unfortunately, though, the bill is expected to return in 2008.

RFID Tags: The House took no action this year on a Senate-approved measure, sponsored by Sen. Frank Ciccone at the ACLU’s behest, to restrict the state and municipalities from using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology on students, employees or clients. The need for such a bill emerged after a school district in California began requiring students to wear RFID tags, allowing their identity and movement to be tracked electronically. Manufacturers of the technology have been touting similar uses since then. RFID devices were developed to track cattle and commerce, and the privacy implications of their mandatory use on people remain unsettling. Last year, Sen. Ciccone’s bill passed both Houses but was vetoed by the Governor.

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Sexual Privacy

Prostitution and Human Trafficking: For the third year in a row, the City of Providence was unsuccessful in its efforts to expand the penalties for prostitution. The city’s push continued even though a federal probe last year confirmed that many of the women that had been arrested by the city in prostitution raids were the victims of human trafficking. The ACLU, the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence, RI NOW and other groups strongly opposed the measure, arguing that it only further victimized trafficking victims. Following up on the federal information, the General Assembly this year more appropriately focused on the traffickers instead, and passed a measure supported by the Affiliate that sets criminal penalties for those who force women into, and profit from, this horrendous practice.

Abortion: Two anti-choice bills were heard by House committee this year, but no votes were taken on them. They included the perennial bill requiring women to wait at least 24 hours before obtaining an abortion and imposing on doctors onerous and biased “informed consent” requirements unlike those for any other medical procedure. That bill had passed the Senate in previous years. For now, though, the status quo on reproductive rights in Rhode Island remains.

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Medical Privacy

Medical Marijuana: Overriding a Gubernatorial veto, Rhode Island took the positive step of making permanent a law passed last year allowing patients with specific serious and terminal illnesses to possess small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes, if authorized by a physician. Last year’s law had a June 2007 sunset clause, which has now been eliminated. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Thomas Slater and Sen. Rhoda Perry.

Organ Donations: A revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act has become law through the collaboration of the ACLU, the RI Department of Health and the New England Organ Bank. The Affiliate had raised a number of concerns about the original bill, which contained an unduly broad list of persons who could authorize organ donations on behalf of a decedent, allowed donor procurement organizations access to a wide range of non-medical information about potential donors, and authorized organ donation considerations to override a patient’s explicit living will instructions. The groups successfully worked together to amend the bill and address the Affiliate’s concerns.

Prenatal HIV Testing: After a long and arduous process, beginning even before the bill’s introduction, a compromise bill addressing procedures for HIV testing of pregnant women was passed into law. The original bill, vehemently opposed by the ACLU, eliminated any pre-test HIV counseling for pregnant women while simultaneously weakening informed consent requirements for the testing. In the end, the Affiliate was successful in getting counseling requirements restored, mandating documentation of a patient’s consent for the testing to be included in the medical record, and barring discrimination by doctors against women who opt out of testing.

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Criminal Justice

Some of the most difficult issues the ACLU usually faces in the General Assembly involve criminal justice. Legislators generally fear appearing to be “soft on crime,” and the result is oftentimes the passage of bills that do little to solve the crime problem but much to erode civil liberties. In 2007, however, two very positive bills were approved by the General Assembly, only to then be vetoed by the Governor on the flimsiest of grounds.

“Civil Death”: One court has called “civil death” laws “an outdated and inscrutable common law precept” and “a medieval fiction in a modern world,” but Rhode Island is one of only four states to still have such a law. As a result of an illconceived Gubernatorial veto, it will remain so for at least another year. The law, enacted in 1909, declares people sentenced to life imprisonment to be “dead” for virtually all legal purposes, including those relating to matrimony and holding property, even though most are eligible for parole after 20 years. Rep. Edith Ajello introduced a bill repealing the statute at the ACLU’s request, after hearing from the fiancée of an ACI inmate serving a life sentence whose effort to obtain a marriage license was rebuffed because of the law. In vetoing the measure, the governor called that objective “insufficient reason to pass legislation,” and that “the loss of property, and even the right to marry, is not unreasonable” for those serving life sentences. In light of the veto, the ACLU expects to file a legal challenge to the law’s constitutionality.

Drug Sentences: Despite broad support for the legislation from the General Assembly, the governor also vetoed a bill that would have eliminated the mandatory minimum sentences in place for certain drug offenses. Relying on objections that had been raised by the State Police, the governor’s veto message asserted that the mandatory sentences being repealed by the bill “exist more in theory than in reality.” Advocacy groups will be working to have the veto overridden.

Protection from Self-Incrimination: As has happened in previous years, the House took no action on a Senate bill that would have allowed for the forced administration of blood tests on persons in vehicular accidents involving death or serious injury. 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 a gross violation of the privilege against self-incrimination, and noted that proponents have been unable to point to any instance where lack of this power has hindered drunk driving convictions.

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Voting Rights

Election Law Reform: Opposition from the state Board of Elections and the creation by the Secretary of State of a commission to review voting issues kept a comprehensive election reform bill drafted by the ACLU from moving forward. In response to numerous problems documented in last November’s elections, the bill sought to overturn restrictive Board of Elections policies that substantially limit the counting of provisional ballots and restrict candidates’ rights to view disputed ballots during recounts of close elections. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Paul Moura, had bi-partisan support and was also actively backed by Ocean State Action and a coalition of other groups. It will be reintroduced next year.

Voter ID: On the more positive side, no action was taken on legislation requiring individuals to provide certain forms of identification in order to vote at the polling booth. 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 obtain the necessary documents for one. The ACLU helped organize a coalition of civil rights and community groups – ranging from the AARP to the Commission for Human Rights – to oppose the bill. Ominously, however, Secretary of State Ralph Mollis has continued to tout voter ID as an appropriate measure to address the “perception” of voter fraud in the state, despite the complete lack of any actual evidence of such fraud in local elections.

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Workplace Rights

Lie Detectors: For the second year in a row, the Senate took no action on an invasive House bill allowing police agencies to give lie detector tests to job applicants. Rhode Island has banned polygraph tests in employment for over 40 years, and the ACLU emphasized that their inaccuracy and intrusiveness are as troubling now as they were then.

DCYF Background Checks: In another victory for workplace privacy, the Senate also took no action on a House bill that would have given DCYF and licensed day care agencies direct access to job applicants’ entire criminal history. Presently, applicants apply for a criminal background check with the police, who compare any criminal record with a specified list of disqualifying offenses; only if such an offense is found is the employer notified that the person has a criminal record. The legislation eliminated this carefully-crafted process and would have given day care agencies carte blanche authority to deny employment to people with any criminal record, including applicants with only arrest records. The state Commission for Human Rights joined the ACLU in lobbying against the bill.

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Rights of Immigrants

It was a tough session for the immigrant community in Rhode Island, as more than two dozen anti-immigrant measures were introduced in the General Assembly. Their purported aim at “illegal” immigrants was belied by what the main sponsor of these bills called the keystone of the package – making English the state’s official language. The package also included blatantly unconstitutional bills, such as one that would have denied a public education to the children of immigrants not lawfully in the country. Fortunately, none of the bills became law, although two did make it through the House.

Representative Jon Brien’s bill requiring all non-governmental employers to verify work authorization of new hires through the use of Basic Pilot, a federal program reliant on largely inaccurate databases, was voted out of the House by a 46-18 vote in the late hours of the session’s final day. The other bill approved by the House was from Representative Richard Singleton’s package of anti-immigrant legislation, and would have prohibited the Department of Motor Vehicles from accepting any “out of date” documents for driver’s license applications. Although neither bill made it to the Senate floor, it is clear that the continued targeting of immigrants will be a major legislative battle in 2008.

Conversely, no pro-immigrant legislation made it out of committee this year. Despite support from many advocacy groups for both an in-state tuition bill – allowing immigrant children who are long-time residents of Rhode Island to qualify for in-state tuition at the state’s higher education institutions – and legislation that would have restored some immigrant children back to the RIte Care rolls, House Finance Committee took no action on either measure.

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Lesbian and Gay Rights

A bill that would have allowed domestic partners of state employees access to their partners’ pensions, thus providing further security, stability and protections for same-sex families in Rhode Island, overwhelmingly passed the General Assembly, but was vetoed by the governor. The governor called the bill “an ill-thought-out expansion of employee benefits that will cost the State significant dollars over a long period of time.” The Affiliate has joined with Marriage Equality Rhode Island in urging a legislative override of the veto.

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