Asset forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on private property by government today. While many might assume that these laws are directed at criminals, in reality simply being suspected or accused of a crime is sufficient for a state to take your property. Rhode Island is no different.

Asset Forfeiture Reform in Rhode Island

An Opportunity for Rhode Island to Lead the Way for Civil Rights, Responsible Government, and Conscientious Budgeting

by Giovanni D. Cicione, Esq., Chair, Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights

  
OVERVIEW

Civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on cars, cash, and other private property by government today.  While many policymakers and citizens might assume that these laws are directed at criminals, in reality simply being suspected or accused of a crime is sufficient for a state to take your property.  Rhode Island is no different.

The Attorney General’s description of our state laws provides some sense of perspective and context:

The Narcotics and Organized Crime Unit (NOCU) is “responsible for processing all narcotics, gambling, and racketeering-related asset forfeitures.  Proceeds from the sale of forfeited assets represent an important source of ongoing drug and crime suppression efforts of state and local police.  In 2016, the Unit opened 284 new forfeiture cases and disposed of 277 cases.  In total, the Unit seized $1,682,426 in cash and property and processed $979,700 in total cash and property forfeited.  Under Rhode Island General Law, assets obtained through illegal drug operations are forfeited and distributed among state and local police, the Office of Attorney General, and the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities & Hospitals (BHDDH). As prescribed by statute, 20 percent of seized proceeds shall be provided to the Office of Attorney General to be used for further drug-related investigations and prosecutions, 70 percent is divided among the state and local police departments proportionately based upon their contribution to the investigation, and 10 percent provided to BHDDH to support substance abuse treatment programs.  Last year [2016], $449,206 in “cash” was distributed to the Rhode Island State Police and local police departments, $64,172 to BHDDH, and $128,344 to the Office of Attorney General. Another $283,380 worth of forfeited property was distributed to state and local law enforcement agencies for use or auction.” [i]

While the original good intent of such forfeiture laws cannot be disputed — removing the ill-gotten gains, resources, and instruments of those committing crimes from their reach — the experience of many years has drawn attention to needed reform in the authorizing statutes.  Since 2014, 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed forfeiture reforms. [ii]  Reform for Rhode Island is long overdue.

General Recommendations
  • Improve administration of forfeiture programs in order to increase the credibility of law enforcement as they conduct permitted seizures.
  • Build in transparency around asset forfeiture actions so that elected officials and citizens have the data necessary to provide oversight and improve the processes. This includes keeping track of how much the state seizes, whether the citizens are ever convicted of a crime, and how much money comes in from those seizures.
  • Local governments should not profit from asset forfeiture and should be held accountable if they abuse the process.
  • We should avoid seizures from innocent property owners and co-owners and build in legal protections before the state takes final title to property.
  • Most importantly, we must raise the bar and provide prompt and streamlined legal procedures to protect the property rights of innocent owners.
INTRODUCTION

This paper is intended to provide a detailed analysis of legislation proposed in the 2018 session of the Rhode Island General Assembly that would significantly reform those provisions of Rhode Island law which allow law enforcement agencies to seize money and property from criminal suspects and retain those monies for their own purposes.

Current Rhode Island law lets the state take your property on the basis of no more than suspicion.  If you don’t hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit against your own property, you soon lose it.  Worst of all, Rhode Island allows the law enforcement agency that seized your property to keep the majority of it to supplement their own budgets, creating a perverse incentive to violate your due process rights.

By way of example, and as noted in recent Senate Judiciary Committee testimony by Assistant Public Defender Michael A. DeLauro:

A leading Rhode Island Supreme Court decision amply illustrates the need for reform. In State v. Grullon, 783 A.2d 928, 929 (R.I. 2001) the defendant was arrested for and charged with unlawful delivery of a controlled substance. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of $2183.00 that was to be used in moving his family from New York City to Providence. Immediately after his arrest the state initiated successful forfeiture proceedings. After a jury waived trial in which the defendant was found “not guilty” of unlawful delivery of a controlled substance he sought to undo the forfeiture. In denying the request both the Superior and Supreme Courts relied on technical grounds holding that 1) it was not within the province of the court to do so and 2) the forfeiture did not violate due process and the Eighth Amendment’s protection against the imposition of excessive fines.[iii]

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity is leading a coalition to raise the bar for asset forfeiture and adopt better practices.  As a part of that effort the Hopkins Center has researched model legislation and best practices in the other states that have adopted reforms, including those adopted by our fellow New England State of New Hampshire.

FORFEITURE 101: GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT

At its most basic level, asset forfeiture is a trade-off between the demands of policing and the civil rights of citizens. [iv]  No one objects to taking weapons from criminals caught in the act, seizing the stolen goods they hold unjustly, or making them pay restitution for the harms inflicted as they absconded with their ill-gotten gains.  At the same time, no one would question the right of innocent owners to be secure in their property.  The idea that the government cannot seize your assets on a whim — that “due process” is required — is a bedrock principle of our constitutional democracy.  Asset forfeiture lives in a grey area between those competing ideals, and from time to time, the pendulum of freedom swings a bit wide.

Pirates, Prohibition, and Scarface: The Birth of a Problem

Chip Mellor gives an excellent summary of the origins of asset forfeiture laws in American law: [v]

American forfeiture law arose from the British Navigation Acts of the mid-17th century. Passed during England’s vast expansion as a maritime power, the Acts required that any ships importing or exporting goods from British ports fly under the British flag. If the Acts were violated, the ships or the cargo could be seized and forfeited to the crown regardless of the guilt or innocence of the owner. The British laws focused on seizing the assets because they could punish violations of the law even when they could not capture the violators. Using the British statutes as a model, the first U.S. Congress passed forfeiture statutes to aid in the collection of customs duties, which provided up to 90 percent of the finances for the federal government during that time.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld early forfeiture statutes. Most important to understanding these early cases is the underlying rationale for permitting civil forfeiture even against innocent property owners. The Court reasoned that civil forfeiture was closely tied to the practical necessities of enforcing admiralty, piracy and customs laws. Such forfeiture permitted courts to obtain jurisdiction over property when it was virtually impossible to obtain jurisdiction over the persons guilty of violating maritime law. Justice Joseph Story wrote that the “vessel which commits the aggression is treated as the offender, as the guilty instrument or thing to which the forfeiture attachés, without any reference whatsoever to the character or conduct of the owner.” Justice Story justified these forfeitures “from the necessity of the case, as the only adequate means of suppressing the offense or wrong, or insuring an indemnity to the injured party.”

Although asset forfeiture law saw increased use during the Civil War and then again during Prohibition, it wasn’t until the 1980s and the heyday of the war on drugs that forfeiture became such a powerful weapon in the government’s arsenal. The fear of drug lords in mansions with pet tigers and machine guns ran rampant, and as with many erosions of civil rights, fear led to calls for more authority and more discretion to be placed in the hands of law enforcement.  And as with most such erosions, time has tended to demonstrate that, once in hand, the government will take such power and discretion to its limit.

RHODE ISLAND STATUTES: A FAILING GRADE FOR JUSTICE

The data in Rhode Island demonstrates that maxim fairly clearly.  According to the Institute for Justice, which produces a state-by-state report card on the topic, “Rhode Island has awful civil forfeiture laws.” [vi]  That blunt assessment and the D- grade award our state is reflective of at least three important factors in the existing law:

  1. Law enforcement need only show probable cause to seize property, but for property to be returned in Rhode Island, it is up to owners to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their property is not forfeitable. (“Guilty until proven innocent,” as it were.)
  2. Innocent owners making claims also bear the burden of proving that they had no involvement in the illegal use of their property in order to recover it.
  3. Rhode Island law enforcement agencies retain 90% of all forfeiture proceeds, a generous incentive to aggressively wield their forfeiture powers.[vii]

Social Injustice

Another unfortunate feature of asset forfeiture schemes generally is that they have disparate impacts with regard to race and income.  Using data collected by Lucy Parsons Labs, a Chicago non-profit that focuses on police accountability, the Reason Foundation mapped the addresses where asset seizures took place in Cook County, Illinois.  The results were not surprising.

“This data shows what we already know, that the seizures tried by CCSAO overwhelming steal the possessions of poor people,” Lucy Parsons Labs said in a statement to Reason. “The data shows that the seizures are clumped in the South and West side, overwhelmingly African-American neighborhoods.”[viii]  (Emphasis added.)

Law enforcement agencies in Rhode Island are required to report their forfeitures to the state treasurer and attorney general, who then aggregate the data and provide annual reports to the legislature.  Disappointingly, these reports are not available online.  Law enforcement agencies reportedly seized more than $8.3 million through asset forfeiture proceedings between 2009 and 2014, averaging almost $1.4 million per calendar year.

The current asset forfeiture structure in Rhode Island not only demeans the law and our judicial system, it demeans the profession for all of law enforcement.  Our laws are bad for good cops.

A SOLUTION: THE ASSET FORFEITURE PROCESS AND PROPERTY RIGHT PRESERVATION ACT

The reform act now pending before the Rhode island General Assembly was drafted with three key goals in mind:

  1. Add well-defined structure to the administration of forfeiture programs in order to increase the credibility of law enforcement as it undertakes permitted seizures
  2. Avoid seizures from innocent property owners and remove financial incentives that would encourage overreach in this area
  3. Make the seizure process transparent so that elected officials and citizens have the data necessary to provide oversight and improve
    the processes
Key Provisions

Restore Revenue Oversight to the General Assembly

Current Rhode Island law has none of the 10 national best practices for accounting for forfeiture fund spending. [ix]  This means that we have the lowest possible rating for accountability for spending of seized funds.  While many states are adding oversight requirements for local departments, horror stories of uncontrolled spending abound.  The Institute for Justice compiled a list of the six “craziest” expenditures that can be viewed on YouTube[x] but bear summarizing here:

#6  Steak, booze, and CeeLo Green tickets

#5    Tequila, rum, kegs of beer, and a margarita machine

#4  A six-day law conference (junket) in Hawaii

#3  A $90,000 Dodge Viper

#2  A $35,000 inmate-built “party house”

#1  $40,000 for drugs and prostitutes

Revenue from seizures is in part paid directly to the local law enforcement agencies conducting the seizures.  While reasonable as a means of rewarding good policing, this system also carries the risk of creating a financial incentive to abuse the process.  The reform act would direct all funds seized under state law to the general treasury, eliminating one of the last vestiges of what is generally referred to as a “restricted receipt” account system, consistent with broad state reform efforts undertaken on this front in the past.  Essentially, the move away from restricted receipt accounts returns budgeting authority to the General Assembly, rather than creating slush funds with little or no accountability.

These off-budget accounts lead to waste in the worst cases, but even in the best cases, they end-run the authority of the legislature and leave the spending decisions to the whims of local agencies.  A more-conscientious approach not only retains the checks and balances of legislative oversight of budgeting, but also helps avoid the egregious and embarrassing expenditures that so often make the news and demean the reputations of law enforcement agencies everywhere.

Protect Innocent Property Owners

Under the current system, innocent Rhode Islanders must live in fear of losing their cars or their homes because little Johnny was caught selling pot to his friends in the family minivan or his bedroom.  Reforming the financial incentives as noted above reduces the risk of such overreach by law enforcement and leaves the spending discretion that our forfeiture program provides squarely in the hands of the legislature.

This shift in incentives, coupled with procedural protections omitted from early asset forfeiture laws, creates a strong set of defenses for innocent property owners.  The legal process is spelled out clearly, deadlines and timing are addressed in detail, and innocent owners promptly get to make their cases to the court.

The model case for why these rights need to be enshrined in law is that of Anthonia Nwaorie.  As recently reported by the Washington Post, Ms. Nwaorie, a 59-year-old registered nurse, was traveling to Nigeria to open a medical clinic and had $41,000 in cash she had saved for that purpose seized for no reason other the fact that she was carrying a large amount of cash.  Six months later she has yet to get it back, in part because law enforcement demanded that she first sign a legal release protecting them from lawsuits. [xi]

Data Collection and Transparency

The reform act is not intended to weaken this valuable law enforcement tool.  In order to ensure that it is being used properly and judiciously and to further allow the legislature to monitor its effects and reach over the years to come, the act provides detailed data collection and reporting guidelines.

These data points will allow us to compare Rhode Island to other states that are collecting similar data and to assure ourselves that these tools are being used, but not abused.  Transparency, particularly in the realm of law enforcement, is vital toward establishing trust in government and a feeling withing communities that all are being treated fairly.  The law should be blind, but the legislature should not. [xii]

Outline

An outline and brief description of each substantive sections of the model legislation is provided in Appendix A.

CONCLUSION

The criminal justice system today looks little like that of its predecessors in the common law or even the system created at the time of the birth of our country.  It is larger, more expansive, more expensive, and covers more conduct and more citizens than ever before.

But that does not mean that the fundamental aspects of criminal justice that serve to ensure a fair and just system for all citizens should be ignored.  In fact, quite the opposite.  A robust criminal justice system demands robust protections for innocent citizens, to ensure they are not unfairly caught up in the system.

Asset forfeiture reform would prevent unjust seizures from innocent citizens. It would protect citizens from overzealous law enforcement action and provide peace of mind for those taking part in wholly innocent and blameless — even admirable — behavior.  It would empower the legislature by restoring its right and proper budgetary authority over seized funds.  It would also make great strides toward building in protections for law enforcement that ensure their reputations, their professionalism, and their community support remain as solid as possible.

APPENDIX A: SECTION OUTLINE OF MODEL LEGISLATION

This outline is intended to serve as a handy guide to the substantive sections of the legislation and is not comprehensive or a complete list of provisions.

Section I

Chapter 1:  Title.

Chapter 2:  Definitions.

Chapter 3:  Purpose.

Chapter 4:  Property Subject to Criminal Forfeiture.

Chapter 5:  Exemption for cars of modest value.

Chapter 6:  Conviction and proof to a defined legal standard are required for seizure and forfeiture of assets.

Chapter 7:  Substitution of assets of the accused criminal trying to avoid forfeiture is allowed if the assets that would otherwise be subject are out of reach.

Chapter 8:  These laws provide the exclusive process for forfeiture in Rhode Island.

Chapter 9:  There is no joint and several liability in forfeiture that would allow a third party to have property seized.

Chapter 10: Seizure must generally be by court order.

Chapter 11: If the police are concerned about losing access to the property that should be seized, they can do so without a court order so as to avoid removal or destruction of the property by the suspect.

Chapter 12: Seizer of real property (a house) must be done by court order.

Chapter 13: Record keeping requirements are outlined.

Chapter 14: Government can’t force an innocent property owner to give up due process rights in order to get property back.

Chapter 15: The property owner can secure a bond or substitute property of equal value to get seized property back while waiting for trial.  This is particularly important for innocent owners who have business assets seized and would otherwise be prevented from earning a living.

Chapter 16: Provides a pre-trial hearing process in order to determine that a seizure was done legally.

Chapter 17: Details rules for discovery and trial procedure.

Chapter 18: Outlines trial procedure and requires the state to promptly give its reasons and justifications for seizure and forfeiture and provides clear proced-ural steps for the government to follow in order to complete the forfeiture.

Chapter 19: Allows a property owner to argue that the value of a seizure is disproportionate to the crime of which he or she was accused.

Chapter 20: Protects banks and other secured parties to the extent of their interests in seized property (for example, mortgages and car loans.)

Chapter 21: Protects innocent owners.

Chapter 22: Outlines appeal procedures.

Chapter 23: Describes the process for disposition of proceeds from forfeitures,
including restitution of victims, costs of police investigations, and the costs of the prosecution.

Chapter 24: Provides limits on retention or sale of property by law enforcement agencies.

Chapter 25: Places requirements for the prompt and complete return of the property of innocent owners.

Chapter 26: Limits the ability of law enforcement to end-run state due process protections by turning over seized property to the federal government.

Chapter 27: Allows innocent owners the right to recover attorney’s fees spent in fighting to get property back.

Chapter 28: Creates a process for returning the property of otherwise innocent owners who have been deported, and a process for abandonment of that property if no interested party can be identified.

Chapter 29: Creates penalties for violations of these laws.

Chapter 30: Makes clear that these laws preempt and local laws, rules, procedures, or practices.

Chapter 31: Severability of any provision found invalid.

Section II

Strikes the existing laws relating to asset forfeiture in Rhode Island, which have been replaced by the laws in Section I.

Section III

Provides that the legislation would take effect upon passage.


[i] Office of the Attorney General. 2016 Annual Report. Available at: www.riag.ri.gov/documents/2016AnnualReport.pdf (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[ii] Institute for Justice. “Civil Forfeiture Reforms on the State Level.” Available at: ij.org/activism/legislation/civil-forfeiture-legislative-highlights (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[iii] DeLauro, “Michael A. Written Testimony of Michael A DeLauro, Assistant Public Defender, Director of Training and Legislative Liaison, addressed to Senator Erin Lynch Prate, Chairwoman, Senate Judiciary Committee.” April 26, 2018.

[iv] This summary draws heavily from the “Policing for Profit” report published by the Institute for Justice, authored by Dick M. Carpenter II, Ph.D., Lisa Knepper, Angela C. Erickson and Jennifer McDonald, with contributions from Wesley Hottot and Keith Diggs. Available at: http://ij.org/report/policing-for-profit (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[v] Mellor, Chip. “Civil Forfeiture Laws and the Continued Assault on Private Property.” Forbes. June 8, 2011. Available at: www.forbes.com/2011/06/08/property-civil-forfeiture.html (Accessed: 5/14/18.)

[vi] Institute for Justice. “Rhode Island earns a D- for its civil forfeiture laws.” Available at: ij.org/pfp-state-pages/pfp-Rhode-Island (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ciaramella, C.J. “Poor Neighborhoods Hit Hardest by Asset Forfeiture in Chicago, Data Shows.” June 13, 2017 Available at: reason.com/blog/2017/06/13/poor-neighborhoods-hit-hardest-by-asset (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[ix] Erickson, Angela C., Jennifer McDonald and Mindy Menjou. “Forfeiture Transparency & Accountability: Rhode Island Report Card.” Available at: ij.org/report/forfeiture-transparency-accountability/?state=US-RI (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[x] Institute for Justice. “The Top 6 Craziest Things Cops Spent Forfeiture Money On.” YouTube. January 31, 2014. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=6&v=n2iJ7UBODw8 (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[xi] Flynn, Meaghan. “She saved thousands to open a medical clinic in Nigeria. U.S. Customs took all of it at the airport.” Washington Post. May 9, 2018. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/05/09/she-saved-thousands-to-open-a-medical-clinic-in-nigeria-u-s-customs-took-all-of-it-at-the-airport/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.55b319966e78 (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[xii] Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 559 (1896): “In view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

We are pleased to join with dozens of our fellow think tank partners in support of keeping automobile prices low. California adopted statewide motor vehicle greenhouse gas emission rules in September 2004 to impose very strict limits on the emissions. We are calling on the EPA to revoke their special privileges.

Center Co-Signs National Coalition Letter to the EPA to Revoke the “California Waiver”

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity is pleased to join with dozens of our fellow think tank partners in support of keeping automobile prices low. California adopted statewide motor vehicle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission rules in September 2004 to impose very strict limits on the emission of CO2 from automobile tailpipes.  While the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) generally preempts states from adopting their own motor vehicle emission regulations, CAA Section 209(b) allows the state to petition for a California waiver from that prohibition.  If EPA grants such a waiver to California, other states may then adopt (without amendment, by legislation or executive order) the California regulatory regime.

In December 2005, California requested that EPA grant a waiver of preemption for its GHG regulations for automobiles.  In April, 2007, the United States Supreme Court, in Massachusetts vs. EPA, empowered EPA to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act.  As a result, the California waiver request came under active consideration at EPA.  The request was denied in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration.  However, in January 2009, the California Air Resources Board requested that EPA reconsider its denial.  In July 2009, the Obama administration granted California’s waiver request, clearing the way for California to implement its motor vehicle GHG regulations – and for other states to follow suit.

Currently, 13 States – Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington – and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s stricter automobile emissions standards.  In addition, nine – CT, ME, MD, MA, NJ, NY, OR, RI, and VT – have adopted California’s “zero emission vehicle” (ZEV) mandate.

Our state government, always looking for schemes to grab money from our pockets, has recently also become subservient to political correctness. This year, the hysteria to punish everything tobacco-industry related, shows how the progressive world of make believe can wreak havoc on RI’s economy with a new cigarette tax.

Article 4, Cigarette Tax and the Make Believe World of Political Correctness

Our state government, always looking for schemes to grab money from our pockets, has recently also become subservient to political correctness. This year, the hysteria to punish everything tobacco-industry related, shows how the progressive world of make believe can  wreak havoc on Rhode Island’s economy. Article 4 of the Governor’s proposed fiscal-year 2019 budget calls for yet another excise tobacco tax increase on cigarettes, to $4.50 per pack; a 534% increase since 2001, while pretending that there will be no adverse impact on low-income families or our state’s economy.

In the progressive-left fantasy world, all tobacco and vaping products would be abolished. But the reality is that tobacco products are legal, and tobacco users will continue to purchase related products at the lowest prices they can find.

Progressives pretend that poor Rhode Islanders would not disproportionately bear the burden of this regressive tobacco tax. In fact, low-income individuals use tobacco more often and spend more of their incomes on such products. This means less money for more-healthy items such as groceries, home heating, and other household goods.

Anti-tobacco fanatics also pretend that taxes on cigarettes are NOT a driving factor in determining retail store patronage, where smokers will also buy gasoline and other convenience items. It’s true, that to avoid high cigarette taxes, smokers will simply drive a few miles across state-lines and spend their money elsewhere. Many small business retailers, with almost one-third of their revenue derived from tobacco-related products, could be severely harmed.

Further, in their land of make believe, progressives fail to recognize the unintended consequence that high tobacco tax will also fuel an underground market of illegally smuggled and sold products. This real-life underground economy not only reduces state tax receipts, but leads to more illegal activity … with all of the associated costs of increased prosecutions and incarcerations.

Progressives also pretend that proven economic principles will not come into play; that the loss of disposable income, the retail sales losses, and the increased criminal justice costs would NOT further weaken our already fragile state economy.

They also pretend this added tax will give them more money to spend in the state’s budget. However, in the real world, the law of diminishing returns means that higher revenues from higher cigarette taxes are uncertain and unlikely. The total state intake from its 2005 cigarette tax of $2.46 per pack is virtually identical to its 2017 intake at $3.75 per pack, around $137 million per year. In reality, receipts actually decreased when the tax was raised, in many years.

Other related legislation this year is similarly based on make believe assumptions. Plans to increase taxes on vaping products, which are up to 95% less harmful than cigarettes for those who switch will not improve public health. Real-world research shows that high vaping taxes would disincentive use of “harm reduction” products that could dramatically improve societal health and decrease medical costs, including state Medicaid spending.

Dozens of such politically-correct inspired tax and regulatory policies, based on fantasy assumptions, have resulted in bottom 10 national rankings for our state when it comes to overall business climate, family prosperity, and population growth. Rankings that mean real Rhode Islanders are not realizing their potential. But the politically correct left cares to pretend such harms do not exist. Instead, they dismissively and exclusively care only about their own pretend agenda, while looking to punish anyone they don’t approve of.

It is our hope that state lawmakers, who still have time to think about the actual harm that higher tobacco and vaping taxes would cause, will make reality-based decisions later this spring. The real benefits of not increasing these taxes include; no new burdens imposed on the poor; the jobs and economic advantages of keeping RI retailers more competitive; the reduced criminal justice costs; a budget that does not rely on uncertain receipts; a society with fewer health problems; and the increased overall competitiveness of our state.

We do not live in a fantasy world. And the consequences of limiting or taxing free-choice … because some think they think they know better … mean that many others in the real world will be made to suffer.

This year, let’s stop making these same pretend and emotionally driven mistakes. When it comes to pretend thinking that it is a good thing to increase taxes on politically incorrect products, let’s put some reality-based thought into it for once.

Rhode Island’s ranking on the Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI) held at 47th for March 2018, but one of the three subfactors of the index worsened. On the Freedom Factor, which measures employment and jobs against welfare enrollment, Rhode Island fell one spot to 42nd in the country.

Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI), March 2018: A Slip in the Freedom Factor

Rhode Island’s ranking on the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI) held at 47th for March 2018, but one of the three subfactors of the index worsened. On the Freedom Factor, which measures employment and jobs against welfare enrollment, Rhode Island fell one spot to 42nd in the country. Six of the 12 datapoints of the index changed for this iteration.

Employment was up from the first-reported number for February, by 737, while labor force was up 677. RI-based jobs, however, decreased by 600. Medicaid enrollment improved a little from the previously reported number, with a decrease of 103, but SNAP (food stamps) more than made up for the difference, jumping about 2%, or 3,300 enrollees, perhaps for reasons having to do with the state’s problematic Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP).

Meanwhile, federal taxation in Rhode Island was up some $310 million, or 2%.

The first chart shows Rhode Island still in the last position in New England, 47th in the country. Regional leader New Hampshire is still in 2nd place, nationally, behind Wyoming. Maine improved one spot, to 18th, while Vermont slipped one, to 21st. Massachusetts also fell one, to 34th, while Connecticut jumped six places forward, to 37th, leaving RI alone as a New England state in the bottom 10, nationally. (CT’s story may not be a good one; almost every datapoint was negative, except gross federal income taxes, which dropped 8.5%.)

The second chart shows the gap between RI and New England and the United States on JOI. In both cases, the Ocean State lost a little ground. On the official unemployment rate, RI saw the opposite trend, closing the gaps modestly.

Results for the three underlying JOI factors were:

  • Job Outlook Factor (optimism that adequate work is available): RI held on to 18th.
  • Freedom Factor (the level of work against reliance on welfare programs): RI dropped to 42nd.
  • Prosperity Factor (the financial motivation of income versus taxes): RI remained 47th.
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RhodeMapRI is back! Once again the social equity extremists are trying to prohibit the free-choice and rights of property owners to make business decisions that are in their own best interests. This time with bills H7528 & S2301 the so-called Fair Housing Practices act.

Progressive BAD BILLS of the Week: H7528 / S2301 So-called Fair Housing Practices

RhodeMapRI is Back!

Once again the social equity extremists are back, those who believe that their views of society should prohibit the free-choice and rights of property owners to make business decisions that are in their own best interests. Once again, RhodeMap Rhode Island and HUD (the federal department of Housing and Urban Development), and its local surrogate, the RI Housing authority, are at it again.

Co-sponsored by multiple progressives House bill #7258 and Senate bill #2301, these so-called Fair Housing Practices which mirrors leftist-inspired legislation introduced in other states, have already been heard in the House and Senate Judiciary Committees this year. The legislation claims it seeks to end discriminatory housing practices by certain landlords. In the progressives’ social-equity land of make believe, any Section-8 lessee applicant (those whose rents are subsidized by the federal government) who are not accepted as a tenant, must have been discriminated against.

According to their progressive fantasyland logic, since people receiving Section-8 vouchers are typically low-income; and because many low-income individuals and families are minorities, then saying ‘no’ to a Section-8 applicant must be because of racism, and therefore must be discriminatory. The actual effect of this legislation, which seeks to extend government control into even more aspects of our personal and business lives, would be to subject landlords to lawsuits or other penalties by automatically assuming that discrimination was the motivating factor.

According to federal guidelines, acceptance of Section-8 vouchers are supposed be voluntary. Yet these Fair Housing Practices would impose a defacto state mandate on landlords to accept any Section-8 application they receive. Even if the landlord makes a legitimate and nondiscriminatory business decision otherwise, they would be at legal risk of being prosecuted for discriminatory actions … or, for being a racist.

We can all agree that any such genuine discrimination is wrong, but there already exists multiple state and federal laws that protect against discrimination. Additionally, there are multiple other reasons for making alternative business decisions.

This legislation is a back-door RhodeMap RI type scheme to advance a social equity agenda that will only tear at the fabric of our society … by making innocent private property owners appear to be bigots.

Based on conversations with landlords and with home and facility based child-care business owners I know, there is a major, legitimate, and non-racial reason why some business prefer not to accept clients subsidized by public money and all the red-tape they would have to go through. In this case, once a landlord accepts a federally subsidized Section-8 tenant, that business is now subject to a whole new array of mandates, red tape, and risks that otherwise, it would not have to worry about.

Under this legislative mandate, landlords would be subject to unfair rules by HUD, which we know from the RhodeMap RI debate years ago, does not care about private property rights. HUD has corrupted its mission of putting low-income people into appropriate housing to the point where it routinely tramples on the rights of other private property owners.

Landlords would be forced to endure annual state inspections, they otherwise would not be subject to, and could even be at potential criminal risk if they did not appropriately “police” their own tenants and report to the state any potential violations Section-8 eligibility guidelines.

This legislation, avidly supported by Rhode Island Housing is a clear extension of the HUD and RhodeMap RI anti property-owner agenda.

Consider that this legislation automatically presumes that our neighborhood brothers and sisters are guilty of discrimination. Our Center recently hosted a luncheon where the nationally acclaimed Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, spoke of the “solidarity of brotherhood”, where we should work together to help “start up” the lives of those in our community. But how can it possibly be “solidarity” to automatically and divisively claim that legitimate business decisions by business owners in our community are based on bigotry?

Private business owners should be free to make the business decisions that they feel are best for them. Just because some on the progressive-left see inequities in every aspect of our society, does not mean that government should be stepping-in to tell people how to run their businesses.

Already suffering from one of the most hostile business and legal climates in the country, and with a known affordable housing shortage, Rhode Island would become an even more dangerous place to operate as a landlord. Small ‘rental property’ business owners could be forced to spend money unnecessarily to become lawyered-up like a major corporation if they were to be sued … an expense and time most cannot possibly afford. In other states where similar legislation has already been enacted, property owners are indeed being sued, and they are routinely losing in court battles, even though they may have committed no wrong.

Our state would suffer greatly if this unintended consequences of this legislation might drive some landlords out of business, or out of state, and lead to fewer available housing units.

Once again, we ask lawmakers to consider the real-world impacts of such presumptive and intrusive legislation, and to understand that the left’s land of make believe scenario.

Building off the successful “Justice Reinvestment” reforms that were enacted in by Rhode Island lawmakers in 2017, the state’s asset forfeiture laws should next come under scrutiny, as they can often lead to the unfettered government seizure of cars, cash, and other private property.

Asset Forfeiture Reform in Rhode Island: Summary of 2018 Legislation – H7640 and S2681

Building off the successful “Justice Reinvestment” reforms that were enacted in by Rhode Island lawmakers in 2017, the state’s asset forfeiture laws should next come under scrutiny, as they can often lead to the unfettered government seizure of cars, cash, and other private property. While many policymakers might assume that such laws are directed at criminals, in reality, simply being accused of a crime or violating a regulation may be sufficient for the state to take your property.

Rhode Island was recently graded at a D- in a national report by the Institute for Justice for its weak civil forfeiture laws, which, nationally, have led to some of the most egregious infringements of private property rights in the U.S. today. In the past 12 years, over $17 million of private property has been seized in our state.

While the original good intent of forfeiture laws cannot be disputed — removing the illegal gains, resources, and instruments of those committing crimes from their reach — decades of experience has made obvious the need for statutory reforms, long overdue if Rhode Island is to keep pace with criminal justice reforms being made in other states across America.

Current Law: Rhode Island law sets a very low bar on the front-end by allowing the government to seize property on the mere basis of criminal suspicion and for non-criminal regulatory violations. If you don’t hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit to reclaim your own property, you soon lose it. On the back-end, Rhode Island also sets a very high bar for innocent property owners to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Further, state law allows the government agency that seized your property to keep the majority of it as a means to supplement their own budgets, creating a perverse incentive to violate due process and property rights.

In its January 2018 report, Right To Earn a Living, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity advocated that civil asset forfeiture reforms would improve the State’s poorly ranked business climate, by raising the bar for asset forfeiture from businesses and individuals as well as to adopt better forfeiture administration. The Hopkins Center has researched best practices in the other states that have adopted reforms, and drafted language new criminal forfeiture law that every Rhode Island legislator could support.

Also supported by business groups, the RI ACLU, the RI Families Coalition, and civil society leaders, the bi-partisan legislation (H7640 & S2681) represents a total rewrite of existing statutes and which includes the following key features:

  1. Raised the bar for seizures: Avoids government taking for civil violations and from non-defendant property owners and co-owners, while also building-in legal protections before the state seizes property.
  2. Lowered the bar for due process: Provides less-burdensome, prompt, and streamlined legal procedures for innocent property owners to reclaim seized assets.
  3. Increased transparency: Greater transparency around forfeiture actions so that public officials and citizens have the data to provide appropriate oversight. The 4-pages of new reporting provisions include keeping track of and reporting how much the government seizes, whether property owners are ever convicted of a crime, and how much money comes in from those seizures, as opposed to the 4-lines of reporting in current law.
  4. Enhanced administration: Improves administration of forfeiture programs in order to increase the credibility of law enforcement as they conduct permitted seizures; including prohibition of sale of assets for any person’s gain and a streamlined process for returning property.
  5. Budget accountability: Unelected bureaucrats in state and local agencies should not be empowered to manage profits from asset forfeitures or be free from public accountability. Legitimately seized moneys go to the state’s general fund where duly elected officials decide if and how to redistribute them.

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is the Ocean State’s leading voice against the wreckage caused by our state’s progressive agenda.

As the state’s leading research organization, advancing family and business friendly values… the mission of our Center is to make Rhode Island a better place to call home – to raise a family and to build a career.

While progressives value government-centric, taxpayer-funded dependency… our Center believes in the value of hard work and the free-enterprise system.

We understand that in order for more Rhode Island families to have a better quality of life, that more and better businesses are needed to create more and better jobs.

Your donation will help us fight the union-progressive movement and, instead, advocate for pro-family, pro-business policies and values.

Please make a generous, tax-deductible gift to support our Center today!

Progressive lawmakers are once again seeking to hand out “free stuff”, this time to wealthy-out of staters, in a misguided attempt to bribe them to move to Rhode Island. The legislation, House bill H8018 is an extension of the state’s failed corporate welfare strategy.

Progressive Land of Make Believe Bad Bill of the Week: $10K Pays The Way (H8018)

Progressive lawmakers are once again seeking to hand out “free stuff”, this time to wealthy-out of staters, in a misguided attempt to bribe them to move to Rhode Island. The legislation, House bill H8018, has been named the “Progressive Land of Make Believe Bad Bill of the Week” by the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, and is an individual-level extension of the state’s failed corporate welfare strategy.

“If we have to pay families, students, and businesses to move to or remain in Rhode Island, to survive our state’s oppressive tax and regulatory climate, then something is very wrong,” said Mike Stenhouse, the Center’s CEO. “Worse than the obvious face-value inanity of the bill, the ignorant belief of how an economy and family dynamics actually work is what is most troubling. The legislation openly acknowledges the negative economy in our state, yet, as with other progressive policies, it tries to band-aid the symptom rather than cure the core illness. ”

Dubbed by the Center as the #10kPaysTheWay Act, the legislation, sponsored by Representative Carlos Tobon, a progressive-Democrat from Pawtucket, pretends that taxpayer funded government hand-outs would be incentive-enough for upper-middle income people to relocate their lives to the Ocean State. It is the false premise of the progressive ideology that more government dependency is what people want; in this case, in desperate hope of increasing our state’s population so as to avoid losing one of its two U.S House of Representative seats after the 2020 national census is tabulated.

While it is unclear how much of a population increase Rhode Island might need to preclude losing a Congressional seat, the legislation seeks to pay up to 30,000 new families. The cost to state taxpayers for this program, estimated at $300 Million, at the proposed handout rate of $10,000 per family … but only to wealthier families that make over $100,000 per year.

There are so many make-believe assumptions underlying this bill that do not exist in the real world, that it is difficult to know where to begin to enumerate them:

  • Families have left Rhode Island not because of deficient government programs, but because of sub-standard job and educational opportunities. Until we can break away from the self-imposed budgetary constraints and special interest influences that impede reforms in our state, Rhode Island’s bottom-10 business climate and family prosperity rankings, will continue to make Rhode Island a relatively inhospitable place to build a career and raise a family.
  • This regressive ‘wealthy-welfare’ scheme is unfair.  Not only would all current Rhode Island residents, including low-income families, be taxed more so that wealthy out-of-state families can be given our money, but those in-state families that have worked hard to become successful will receive nothing. This is similar to how existing Ocean State businesses have to pay for corporate tax credit handouts to other companies, often their own competitors.
  • People not want to be dependent on government. Current and would-be Rhode Islanders want to live productive, soul-fulfilling, self-sufficient, and prosperous lives … even though progressives like to pretend this that more government programs define success.
  • A government hand-out is not enough to overcome the “long-term and short-term negative economic trends” that the legislation itself admits are currently plaguing our state. Already damaged by too many current job-killing progressive policies, more progressive policies cannot possibly make our state more attractive to families and entrepreneurs.
  • Rhode Island’s population would not likely increase. As with most tax schemes, progressives pretend that there will be no adverse economic impact or other unintended consequence to their simple-minded and purely emotional-based policies. In the real world, tax policy drives behavior. In this case, the increased taxes that will be heaped on every family and business will cause even more people to flee our state.
  • Most importantly, progressives pretend that the obvious solution to Rhode Island’s economic and population stagnation is not staring them directly in the face. Proving that the theoretical benefits of the tax and regulatory reductions that our Center have espoused since its inception in 2011, and which is the foundation of conservative economic policy, the recently implemented federal tax and regulatory reductions have led to unprecedented economic optimism and renewed economic growth across America.

Similarly, if Rhode Island were to abandon its government-centric corporate-welfare and wealthy-welfare agenda, and instead start working on creating a reality-based and improved economic climate, where businesses and families can thrive on their own and without costly government assistance, the Ocean State might soon be able to regain the Congressional seat that progressive policies have likely already doomed us to lose.

In February 2018, Rhode Island’s ranking on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI) moved not at all, remaining 47th. Although six of the seven datapoints that changed for this iteration were positive, they were apparently driven by national trends that affected other states, as well.

Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI), February 2018 Slow and Steady Stays in Place

As 2018 got its footing in February, Rhode Island’s ranking on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI) moved not at all, remaining 47th. Although six of the seven datapoints that changed for this iteration were positive, they were apparently driven by national trends that affected other states, as well. Rhode Island’s relative position therefore stayed the same.

Employment was up from the first-reported number for January, by 528, while labor force was up 738. RI-based jobs increased by 1,200. SNAP (food stamps) also improved, with a reduction of 4,288 enrollees, although complications with the state’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) may be affecting this datapoint for technical reasons unrelated to the economy.

Total personal income in Rhode Island (including various forms of investment) increased 1.95%, or $852 million. However, total state and local taxation increased 2.11%, or $69 million.

The first chart shows Rhode Island still in the last position in New England, 47th in the country. Regional leader New Hampshire is still in 2nd place, nationally, behind Wyoming, and Maine held its 18th position. Vermont regained the spot it lost last month, returning to 20th. Massachusetts held on to its position of 33rd, while Connecticut’s descent paused at 43rd.

The second chart shows the gap between RI and New England and the United States on JOI. In both cases, the Ocean State closed the gap a little. On the official unemployment rate, RI again lost ground against both regions.

Results for the three underlying JOI factors were:

  • Job Outlook Factor (optimism that adequate work is available): RI held on to 18th.
  • Freedom Factor (the level of work against reliance on welfare programs): RI remained 41st.
  • Prosperity Factor (the financial motivation of income versus taxes): RI remained 47th.

Ocular Telemedicine Ban: Progressive Bad Bill of the Week

In blocking technological innovation, by seeking a virtual ban on the emerging and promising “ocular tele-medicine” industry, Senate bill S2404 and its House companion, H7608, have been dubbed the Progressive Land of Make Believe Bad Bills of the Week.

One reason why Rhode Island has such a dismal business climate and reputation is precisely bills like these that stifle innovation and increase costs on patients, all because existing national and local optometry associations and practitioners are asking for protectionist policies that block competition.

Perhaps even worse, Senate committee chairman, Joshua Miller, who oversaw the hearing on the legislation, said he would “dismiss” the testimony of the Center’s CEO, Mike Stenhouse. It is a common tactic of progressives like the Honorable Senator Miller to seek to shut down open and honest debate, because they believe their views, and only their views, deserve discussion.

See Stenhouse’s video commentary here.

See the video of Stenhouse’s actual committee testimony  – and multiple interruptions – here.

Read the GoLocalProv article, where even Common Cause RI criticizes the Senator for his intolerance.

Red below for Stenhouse’s 2017 OpEd on the issue …

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2017 OpEd: Rhode Island Should Encourage Eye Care Innovation, Not Protectionism

Every Rhode Island family should have multiple choices to select the affordable, high-quality health care that’s best for them. And as new federal healthcare laws are debated in Washington, D.C., Rhode Island needs to have its own debate about insurance mandates and other protectionist policies.

In the case of eye care, Rhode Islanders often pay above market rates for glasses and contact lenses. However, new technology has the power to change this inefficiency by lowering prices and increasing convenience for consumers – that is, unless new protectionist legislation is passed into law.

Optometrists are unique in that they are some of the only medical professionals that sell what they prescribe. Oftentimes, they conveniently forget to provide copies of vision prescriptions to patients, or they advise them to purchases lenses directly from eye care offices at inflated prices. The prescriptions that optometrists write are often brand specific – usually for Johnson & Johnson’s Acuvue lenses. The reason is simple: Johnson & Johnson produces over 40 percent of the world’s contacts, and as a way of furthering a monopoly, they give eye care professionals kickbacks on every sale made within their offices.

Federal legislation has attempted to bandage the problem by making it illegal for eye doctors to hold back prescriptions, but, as we all know, there is only so much that government enforcement can do to stop cronyism.

Fortunately, the free market has recently developed a new solution whereby optometrists’ office visits can often be bypassed. New technology accurately allows consumers to measure their prescription strength from the comfort of their own homes, a process known as “ocular telemedicine,” via their smartphones or computers, whereby they can take an eye-test approved by a board-certified ophthalmologist.

Patients can then use that e-prescription to purchase lenses or glasses wherever they choose, typically at much lower prices. With this technology, healthy adults only need to visit a brick-and-mortar eye doctor once every two years for a full eye health exam (as recommended by the American Optometric Association) instead of every time a lens refill is needed, or for specific eye problems.

Although this innovation is saving consumers time and money, it is causing quite an uproar in the optometry industry. Like the hair-styling and cosmetology protectionists who are trying to block natural hair-braiders like Jocelyn DeCouto from practicing their harmless trade, the vision industry is hoping to see through a usage ban on this new technology.

Washington lobbying groups like the American Optometric Association (AOA) are pressuring state legislatures to introduce bills that will ban most uses for ocular telemedicine. On the national level alone, this group is spending nearly $2 million a year in lobbying.

In banning a technology that can provide affordable, high quality eye care for Rhode Islanders – particularly for poor and rural residents – these two bills are an assault on the free market, innovation, and common sense.

Thankfully, this type of legislation has fared poorly in other states. In the past year, similar protectionist bills that kill competition and cost eye care customers more time and money have been shot down across America; New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez issued a veto as did then-Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, who stated the bill, “uses health practice mandates to stifle competition for the benefit of a single industry … putting us on the leading edge of protectionism, not innovation.”

Rhode Island lawmakers need to see through the optometry cartel’s attempts to kill innovation and competition. At-home vision testing technology can empower Rhode Island families and individuals to get the prescription vision-aids they need at lower cost and with more ease than ever before.

 

The new year did not bring any change in Rhode Island’s ranking of 47th place on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s January 2018 Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI). The five of 12 datapoints that changed for this iteration split between positive and negative developments.

Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI), January 2018: Year Not Off to an Auspicious Start

The year 2018 did not bring any change in Rhode Island’s ranking of 47th place on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI). The five of 12 datapoints that changed for this iteration split between positive and negative developments.

Employment was up from the revised number for December, by 330, while labor force was up 334. RI-based jobs increased, from their pre-revision number, by 400. Medicaid enrollment worsened, however, adding 2,380 enrollees, while SNAP (food stamps) also increased,
by 804.

The first chart shows Rhode Island still in the last position in New England, 47th in the country. Regional leader New Hampshire is still in 2nd place, nationally, behind Wyoming. At 18th, Maine remains ahead of Vermont, which slipped a spot, to 21st. Massachusetts held on to its position of 33rd, while Connecticut fell one spot again, to 43rd.

January 2018 Jobs & Opportunity Index Race To First

The second chart shows the gap between RI and New England and the United States on JOI. In both cases, The Ocean State gained slightly on the U.S. average but slipped slightly against New England. On the official unemployment rate, RI lost ground against both regions.

2018 Jobs & Opportunity Index New England And US

2018 Jobs & Opportunity Index New England And US Unemployment

Results for the three underlying JOI factors were:

  • Job Outlook Factor (optimism that adequate work is available): RI held on to 18th.
  • Freedom Factor (the level of work against reliance on welfare programs): RI remained 41st.
  • Prosperity Factor (the financial motivation of income versus taxes): RI remained 47th.