Before July 12, 2016, law enforcement access to cell phone information in RI lacked the regulations needed to protect our privacy. My bill addressed this lack, while also including provisions for emergencies—it takes into account both law enforcement’s capacity to do its job and citizens’ right to privacy.
Every seven seconds our cell phones ping the nearest tower. Each ping results in the automatic recording of the data identifying where we are at that moment. The location information is accurate to within fifty meters. The only way to stop this flow of information is to turn off the phone, and cell providers can store this information indefinitely.
In 2013, a federal inquiry by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts determined that police requests for cell phone information had doubled over the previous five years. Verizon reported 30,000 requests for cell phone location information in one year, with more than 2,000 of those requests for cell tower dumps. (Dumps are reports of all of the phones that have pinged a tower, with the time and date of the ping.) In the same year, AT&T received more than 100,000 requests for historical or real time location information.
The information reveals a detailed map and timeline of our movements: where we are, what route we took to get there, how long we stay, whether we were there yesterday, who else is or has been with us, and more. Up until July, 2016, the sorts of requirements for search and seizure that pertain to our homes and property were nonexistent when it came to cell phones. That is why I introduced legislation to establish limits to the accessibility of cell phone information. After several years of effort the bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly and was signed into law on July 12, 2016, becoming effective immediately.
This law requires the police to obtain a warrant, except in emergency situations, before requiring the cell provider to turn over information. Judicial oversight provides assurance that the information has been requested for a proper purpose. The law includes a broad of array of situations deemed urgent, therefore allowing exceptions to the warrant requirement so that police can find and protect us in emergencies.
Similarly, automobile license plate-reading equipment can also be used to track our movements. That information should be protected in the same way, with the judicial oversight of the warrant approving a request for specific information and allowing exceptions for emergencies. I look forward to championing this legislation in the 2017 session.
At last, on November 8, 2016 we will be able to amend the Rhode Island Constitution and thereby restore the Rhode Island Ethics Commission’s authority over members of the General Assembly. Years of advocacy by so many good folks and, perversely, yet another scandal involving a prominent member of the General Assembly combined for this great win. I and other members of the assembly have been working to restore the commission’s authority over conflict of interest in RI senators’ and representatives’ decisions on legislation since the 2009 Rhode Island Supreme Court Irons decision.
The commission first came into existence partly in response to a scandal involving members of the General Assembly; and it functioned quite well for a number of years—investigating cases, bringing charges, and assessing fines. Members of the RI Senate were charged and prosecuted, but then one of those senators appealed a decision. The RI Supreme Court found that the “speech and debate” clause in our constitution protects members of the General Assembly from charges of conflict of interest in their discussion of and voting on legislation.
But prior to the 2009 decision, the commission had served an advisory role as well as a judicial one. RI state legislators could ask the commission’s advice when they thought they might have a conflict of interest in speaking or voting on an issue. The commission would reply with a recommendation that the legislators recuse themselves (announce that they had a conflict and neither speak nor vote on the issue) if they found sufficient conflict of interest. They could also advise that the legislators were part of a sufficiently large group so as not to have a conflict of interest. Since the decision, this expert advice and guidance has not been available to state legislators.
More importantly, the Ethics Commission has not been able to respond to charges of conflict of interest brought against members of the General Assembly in the same way it responds to such charges against all other Rhode Island state and municipal officials.
Reinstating the authority of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission will not prevent all corruption. Recent news stories regarding one legislator’s legal address demonstrated the value of a diligent press. We must all be vigilant to protect the integrity of our government.
Though I have no doubt that this amendment will pass, I urge everyone to cast their vote to send a strong message in November.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM/REINVESTMENT
Rhode Island has the nation’s third highest percentage of residents on probation. In 2013, RI had 2,737 probationers for every 100,000 adult residents. In 2014, the rate of Providence adults on probation was one in twenty-one (1 in 21). However, only eight percent (8%) of the RI public safety budget goes toward probation and parole services. The resources to monitor and assist probationers in their re-entry are simply stretched too thin. While we must use our dollars efficiently and sustainably, investing wisely in the criminal justice system is key to public welfare.
In 2015, Governor Gina Raimondo created a Justice Reinvestment Working Group. The working group included members of the judiciary, the corrections system, law enforcement, the public defender’s office, legislators and community advocates. The group was tasked to examine the criminal justice system in order to identify ways to save money, to move towards an outcome- oriented system, and to better help people reintegrate into the community.
The bill came together with input from many sides. Those in the judiciary made sure to retain their discretion in sentencing. Prosecutors did not want prosecution of criminals to be made more difficult or sentences too lenient. Defense attorneys, representatives of our corrections system, and individuals who’d been through the system all had opinions as well. In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, the enthusiastic and near unanimous support of every detail was remarkable.
This year I introduced one of the six bills that came out of that group effort. The bill amends criminal justice law to more accurately reflect the seriousness of certain crimes. It clarifies and revises the definitions of and penalties for felony, misdemeanor, petty misdemeanor, larceny, assault, and stolen property crimes. In cases of theft, it bases definition and penalties on the value of the property stolen. None of the six bills were passed this year; I look forward to continuing the effort in January 2017. Going forward, my efforts will focus on ensuring that penalties accurately and fairly match the crime and reflect the interests of the community, including victims.
Finally, the reintegration of formerly incarcerated people back into our communities -- and into healthy, working lives -- is crucial. This process of reform and reintegration is worthy of our investment. For most people in the system, there is life after the sentence. So we all have an interest in ensuring the success of those lives after time served.
COMMON SENSE GUN CONTROL
Guns in Schools
Rhode Island law prohibits firearms and other weapons on school grounds. Although there are appropriate exceptions for law enforcement personnel, people with concealed carry permits (“CCPs”) are also exempted from the prohibition. This makes school grounds more legally open to firearms than airports, courthouses, and many other government buildings, all of which do not allow individuals with CCPs to enter with guns. Schools and our children should receive as much protection from unnecessary firearms as other public places and the people in them. Rhode Island should join the thirty-nine states that do not allow firearms in schools.
Law enforcement and security personnel are best prepared to protect our children and our schools, and will do a better job without armed civilians on site. While some training in handling firearms is required in order to obtain a CCP, the permit does not require training or testing of crisis management skills or protocols. There is no database of individuals with CCPs for police or school administrators or parents to check.
In the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions I introduced legislation to fix this. We had supportive resolutions from a large majority of RI school committees and several town councils. The NRA and the Second Amendment Coalition argued that an armed individual with a CCP could be helpful in an active shooter situation in a school. Representatives of the RI Police Chiefs’ Association and the RI Attorney General’s office thought otherwise; the professionals charged with protecting our children testified that an untrained and unidentified individual would make a crisis situation worse.
I will be dogged in my efforts to protect our children and our schools.
Domestic Abusers and Guns
Rhode Island law prohibits gun ownership or purchase by anyone convicted of domestic violence at the felony level. Fifteen states and Washington, DC extend this prohibition to individuals convicted of the lower misdemeanor level crime of domestic violence. These individuals have been proven in court to have poor impulse control and anger management issues. Domestic abusers have no business possessing firearms. The Second Amendment cannot be imagined to apply to individuals who abuse family members or intimate partners.
I will continue to work with my colleagues and the advocates for stronger protections for victims of domestic abuse.
High-capacity magazines (“HCMs”) carry multiple rounds, enabling shooters to fire again and again and again without stopping to reload. Without that pause to reload, people who have become targets do not have an opportunity to escape or time to disarm or subdue the shooter. HCMs were developed for the use of the military in war situations. RI hunting laws recognize the purpose and capacity of HCMs by limiting duck hunters to 3 rounds and deer hunters to 5 rounds.
We have seen far too much of the carnage possible when one person armed with HCMs attacks. Connecticut and Massachusetts, our neighbors, prohibit all HCMs. We have a battle on our hands just to limit magazine capacity in RI to 10 rounds. I will continue to work with community advocates and General Assembly colleagues towards this modest goal.