Rhode Island Affiliate, American Civil Liberties Union


2013 Legislative Session

In any legislative session, the ACLU of RI monitors hundreds of bills under consideration by the General Assembly. Below are just some of the bills the ACLU of Rhode Island is weighing in on this year; this list is by no means exhaustive, and will be updated as new bills come up and new events take place.

Legislation Issue Areas:

Civil Rights

Gender Rating in Health Insurance (H 5243, S 0201)

In February, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Corporations committee in favor of legislation barring health insurance companies from using gender as a factor in premiums. Nationwide, women are charged more for the same health insurance as men, solely because of their gender; as a result, women are disproportionately less able to purchase vital health care coverage. While this practice will be illegal under federal law beginning in 2014, ACLU of RI-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Donna Walsh and Senator Susan Sosnowski aims to eliminate the practice immediately in Rhode Island. A similar bill died in committee last year.

Marriage Equality (H 5015, S 0038)

The year started off on a joyous note when, just three weeks in to the legislative session, the House overwhelmingly voted to approve marriage equality legislation. Sponsored by Representative Art Handy, the bill grants full marriage rights to all couples, regardless of their gender, who are otherwise eligible to marry. The bill also codifies Rhode Island’s recognition of marriages and civil unions from other states, and includes protections for those religious institutions that choose not to solemnize same-sex marriages. Read our testimony before the House Judiciary committee here. In March, the ACLU of RI testified in support of the Senate version, sponsored by Senator Donna Nesselbush. Read our testimony here.

Father-Daughter Dances (S 0012)

In response to last year’s controversy over father-daughter dances, the General Assembly is considering legislation to weaken the state’s school sex discrimination laws to allow for single-sex activities if a comparable activity exists for the other sex. In March, the ACLU testified that these single-sex activities are generally not comparable, and thereby in violation of the federal law this legislation attempts to mirror. Title IX has been the law for forty years, and any amendments to the state’s anti-discrimination laws must be making steps forward, not backward. Further, it is the responsibility of schools to be inclusive of all families and children, and not to revert to regressive gender segregation. Read our letter to the Cranston School Department here.

return to contents

Criminal Justice

Strip Searches (H 5382, S 0466)

In 2002, the First Circuit court ruled unconstitutional arbitrary strip searches of detainees. For ten years, strip searches were only permitted in certain circumstances. In 2012, a distressing decision by the US Supreme Court overruled the First Circuit’s decision, opening the door for the Department of Corrections to conduct intrusive, humiliating, and unnecessary searches on any detainee in their custody, including those on pre-trial detention for misdemeanors and non-violent crimes who are not suspected of carrying contraband. In March, the ACLU of RI testified in support of legislation by Senator Gayle Goldin to reinstate the policy in place under the First Circuit decision. The bill requires law enforcement to have reasonable suspicion prior to performing a strip search, and a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a body cavity search. A companion bill, sponsored by Representative Donna Walsh and first drafted by the ACLU of RI in 2002, awaits a hearing on the House side. Read our 2102 letter to the Department of Corrections here.

DNA Testing of Arrestees (H 5205, S 0041)

The General Assembly is again considering legislation allowing for the collection of DNA from any person arrested for a crime of violence or any felony, which can include some banking violations. Under current law, DNA can only be collected from individuals convicted of certain felonies; to collect from individuals who have merely been arrested for a crime is a contradiction of the presumption of innocence and a dangerous step toward the creation of a comprehensive DNA database. Additionally, collecting DNA from every individual arrested for a crime of violence would place a significant burden on the Department of Health, exacerbating the existing testing backlog and delaying justice in those cases where DNA is a critical investigatory element. The ACLU of RI testified in opposition to this bill before the Senate Judiciary committee in February, but they approved the bill and sent it to the floor where it has passed twice before. The bill awaits a hearing in the House. Read our written testimony here.

Computer Crimes (H 5770, S 0550)

The General Assembly is considering legislation to drastically overhaul Rhode Island’s computer crimes laws, altering the definitions of old laws and creating new offenses. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the Senate Judiciary committee that the legislation’s broad language means even some actions clearly protected by the First Amendment, such as commenting online on controversial topics or running a satirical website, could be deemed illegal under state law.

return to contents

Immigrants' RIghts

E-Verify (H 5106, H 5236, H 5258, S 0418)

The ACLU of RI testified in February before the House Labor committee in opposition to a bill making E-Verify use mandatory by Rhode Island employers, and in favor of a bill keeping the E-Verify program voluntary. The ACLU of RI testified that E-Verify continues to be an error-prone system which disproportionately disqualifies legal workers with Hispanic and Arabic last names, is used by employers to discriminate against potential workers, and fails to prevent undocumented workers from obtaining employment. Legislation mandating the use of E-Verify passed the House in 2009. Read our testimony here.

return to contents


Cell Phone Search Warrants (H 5180, S 0291)

The ACLU of RI also testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in February in support of legislation barring law enforcement from searching the contents of a cell phone without first obtaining a warrant. As cell phone technology has advanced, the devices we carry on a daily basis have begun to carry substantial amounts of personal information, including e-mails, photos, and records of where we have traveled, while presenting no immediate danger to law enforcement. Although it is a law enforcement best practice to seek a warrant prior to search of a cell phone, no requirement exists in law. The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed this legislation, sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello and Senator Donna Nesselbush last year; although there was no opposition to the bill, Governor Chafee vetoed the legislation unexpectedly. The ACLU of RI is working hard to ensure the bill’s passage – and signing – this year.

Social Media Passwords (H 5255)

As social media use has become ubiquitous, so too has the temptation for schools and employers to use social media information to observe the activities of students and employees. ACLU of RI-drafted legislation, sponsored by Representative Brian Kennedy, will protect users’ private social media profiles from undue intrusion by barring schools and employers from requesting or requiring students’, employees’ or applicants’ social media passwords, requiring users to access social media in the presence of employers or school officials, or requiring students, employees or applicants to add employers or school officials to their list of contacts.

Automated License Plate Readers (H 5150, H 5533, H 5825, S 0046)

In February, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Corporations committee in opposition to two bills sanctioning the used of automated license plate readers, or scanners placed on police cruisers and used to scan every license plate on the street. Proposed as a way to detect and ticket uninsured motorists, automated license plate readers (ALPRs) have the capacity to track the location of every car even at high rates of speed and over several lanes of traffic, and transmit your insurance and registration information to third parties. Although ALPRs are gaining interest among law enforcement nationwide, their use, the information captured, and who may access that information remain largely unregulated. ACLU-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Larry Valencia seeks to place limits on what information can be captured and accessed. Read our testimony in opposition to ALPRs here.

Nursing Home Monitors (H 5251)

In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare in opposition to legislation allowing for video and audio monitoring of nursing homes, including the bedrooms and bathrooms of residents. While all facilities should be safe for residents, the ACLU testified that this intrusive monitoring all but eliminated the privacy rights of patients, and told those who opted out that they would have to choose between their safety and their privacy instead of finding an appropriate balance between the two. Read our testimony here.

Drones (H 5780, S 0411)

The General Assembly is considering a pair of bills aimed at restricting the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by law enforcement. Although the technology is not used in Rhode Island yet, increasing interest by law enforcement nationwide indicates drones are on their way. Currently, state law lacks the privacy protections critical before drones can be used. ACLU-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Teresa Tanzi seeks to implement those protections, including requiring a warrant before a drone can be used for surveillance. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the Senate Judiciary committee of a similar bill, sponsored by Senator Nick Kettle.

return to contents

Racial Profiling

Racial Profiling (H 5285, S 0145)

For the seventh year, the ACLU of RI is part of a diverse coalition of organizations advocating for passage of the Comprehensive Racial Profiling Prevention Act. Three years’ of traffic stop data have demonstrated consistently that black and Hispanic drivers are twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped by police and searched, while white drivers are more likely to be found with contraband when searched. Sponsored this year by Representative Joseph Almeida and Senator Harold Metts, the bill bars law enforcement from demanding identification from passengers, limits searches of minors and pedestrians absent suspicion of criminal activity, requires police to document the grounds for conducting searches, and reestablishes traffic stop data collection procedures.

return to contents

Rights Of Ex-Offenders

Ban the Box (H 5507, S 0357)

On February 13, the ACLU of RI attended a press conference in support of “Ban the Box” legislation, sponsored by Representative Scott Slater and Senator Harold Metts. Employment is a pivotal factor in preventing recidivism, but well-qualified applicants with criminal records – even bearing long-distant infractions irrelevant to the job for which they are applying – are often excluded from consideration before even having an interview, solely because they honestly answer the question “Have you been convicted of a crime?” This legislation removes that question from the initial application, giving applicants a chance to be interviewed before an employer may ask about a criminal record history and thereby an opportunity for employers to see an applicant’s qualifications and not solely their mistakes. The ACLU of RI testified in support of this legislation before the House Labor committee in March.

Criminal Background Checks (H 5229, H 5337, H 5355, H 5537, H 5539, H 5678, S 0144, S 0332, S 0347, S 0458, S 0468)

The General Assembly this year will likely continue their trend of imposing criminal background checks on applicants for a number of employment and volunteer positions. The ACLU of RI in February testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee on a bill amending legislation requiring such background checks for school mentors; the broadly worded legislation resulted in disqualification of some school mentors in Warwick, derailing students’ senior projects just before the end of the school year. Such broad and confusing background check legislation has become the norm; legislation drafted by the ACLU of RI and introduced by Representative Edith Ajello seeks to make uniform background check requirements.

return to contents

Voting Rights

Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 5283, S 0147)

When it comes to drawing new voting lines, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the census worker comes through are counted as living at the ACI – even individuals there for a few days on pre-trial detention, those serving short sentences, and those who will be incarcerated for several years. Many of these prisoners are not residents of Cranston and cannot vote in Cranston after their release, yet the districts are drawn as if they could; as such, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. Under the redistricting plan adopted last year, 15 percent of House District 20 is comprised of voters who likely cannot vote in Cranston. Legislation introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams and Senator Harold Metts seeks to restore representation in Rhode Island to “one person, one vote” by requiring that, for the purposes of redistricting, prisoners are identified as living at their last known address. The ACLU of RI testified in support of this legislation before the Senate and House Judiciary committees in February; read our testimony in support of this legislation here, and testimony from the Prison Policy Initiative here.

Election Reform (H 5660, S 0421)

Following the flurry of election-related legislation passed by the General Assembly over the last two years, it was unsurprising that the elections of 2012 were riddled with problems. The ACLU of RI testified before the House Oversight committee in February about the difficulties voters faced, and the necessary solutions. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Judiciary committee in favor of our perennial election reform legislation. This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Edie Ajello, makes a number of critical changes to the state’s election laws, including expanding the number of provisional ballots counted and clarifying the rights of poll monitors on Election Day. Read our testimony before the Oversight committee here, and our election reform testimony here.

Voter ID Repeal (H 5776, S 0359)

The ACLU of RI testified before the Senate and House Judiciary committees in February and March, respectively, in support of legislation repealing the state’s voter ID law. Voter ID was passed over the opposition of a number of community advocacy and open government groups who expressed concern that voter ID would impact the right to vote for those individuals least likely to have identification or the documents necessary to obtain ID, including the elderly, minorities, students, and the disabled. With difficulties faced by voters during the 2012 elections when the non-photo ID requirement went in to effect, the ACLU supports efforts by Representative Larry Valencia and Senator Gayle Goldin to repeal the law before the photo ID requirement begins in 2014. Read our testimony here.

return to contents

Youth Rights

High Stakes Testing (H 5277, S 0117)

The ACLU of RI is again working with student and education groups to stop high-stakes testing from keeping otherwise qualified students from graduating. In 2014, Rhode Island is scheduled to begin using standardized testing as a zero-sum graduation requirement. Civil rights and advocacy groups have noted such a test would prevent approximately 90% or more of special education, limited English proficient, economically disadvantaged, Latino or African-American students from graduation. Sponsored by Representative Eileen Naughton and Senator Harold Metts, this legislation does not bar the use of standardized testing, but requires such tests be used only for their intended purpose of identifying struggling students and districts in order to provide intervention. The ACLU of RI testified in support of this critical legislation before the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare in February; test your skills with some of the questions from the NECAP test here.

Pay to Play (H 5138, S 0112)

The ACLU of RI testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee, as well as the Senate Education committee, in opposition to legislation allowing school committees to charge fees to those students participating in extracurricular activities. The ACLU of RI testified that so-called “Pay to Play” programs infringe on the value of a free and fair education, and that fee waivers provide no protection for students who are unable to pay the fees levied for extracurricular programs. Read our testimony here.

Underage Persons in Nightclubs (H 5291)

The General Assembly is again considering perennial legislation barring adults under the age of 21 from entering nightclubs where alcohol is served. In March, the ACLU of RI testified before the House Corporations committee that existing anti-discrimination laws already protect these adults, and that barring them from live music and other venues solely because of the presence of alcohol was an inappropriate infringement on these laws. Just two years ago, the General Assembly passed legislation expanding the ability of licensing boards to penalize nightclubs that serve drinks to underage adults.

School Discipline (H 5754, S 0509)

Statewide, students are routinely suspended from school for small infractions which pose no risk or serious distraction to their peers. Although students who are suspended from school are far more likely than their peers to drop out of school and to end up as part of the criminal justice system. Further, minority students are far more likely to end up suspended. ACLU-drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Teresa Tanzi and Senator Maryellen Goodwin attempts to limit the use of suspensions by requiring suspensions to be served in-school unless the student poses a physical risk or serious distraction to other students. Further, the legislation requires school districts to examine their discipline data and come up with plans to mitigate any disproportionate suspension rates that may exist. The ACLU of RI testified in support of this legislation before the Senate Education committee in March; read our testimony here.

return to contents

The "War on Drugs"


Marijuana Regulation and Taxation (H 5274, S 0334)

The General Assembly this year is considering a bill to legalize the production of marijuana for recreational purposes by adults. Sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello and Senator Donna Nesselbush, the bill would allow the state of Rhode Island to produce and sell marijuana for recreational consumption, ensuring the state can set specific and enforceable limits on who can access marijuana and funneling money from the sale of marijuana to substance abuse treatment programs. The ACLU of RI testified before the House Judiciary Committee in February regarding the significant erosion of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure, which has been the product of the 40-year failed “War on Drugs.”

return to contents

128 Dorrance Street Suite 220    Providence, RI 02903  dot  Phone (401) 831-7171       Fax (401) 831-7175     riaclu@riaclu.org

Thiswww.riaclu.org is the website of the Rhode Island Affiliate, ACLU and the ACLU Foundation of Rhode Island. 

Learn more about the distinction between these two components of the RI ACLU.