ACLU of Rhode Island Warns That Basic Civil Liberties Protections Are Missing Should Flu Outbreak Strike State

November 2, 2005 12:00 am

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ACLU of Rhode Island
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PROVIDENCE, RI — As the state begins preparations for a possible flu pandemic, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today cautioned that residents face another serious consequence should an outbreak occur: the government’s potential use of extraordinary powers that could significantly diminish residents’ freedom, privacy and equality.

“”The state’s emergency health power laws are incredibly far-reaching and authorize some of the most sweeping powers in the country to deal with a health care emergency,”” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.

“”No one questions the need for the state to have broad powers to deal with a health emergency,”” he added. “”But our state’s law is so lacking in procedural safeguards and respect for privacy rights, and so contrary to the action taken by many other states, that our basic freedoms, as well as our health, are at risk should a flu outbreak occur.””

Absent from the law are important conditions contained in the health emergency statutes of many other states, including provisions that:

  • authorize quarantine and isolation only if no less restrictive alternatives are available;
  • require that a court order be obtained before quarantining or isolating a person, unless emergency conditions prevent it;
  • give individuals subject to involuntary confinement a right to counsel;
  • ensure a person’s right to religious worship and to communication with loved ones while quarantined or isolated, and to be tested on a regular basis to ascertain whether quarantine/isolation is still necessary;
  • and guarantee that isolated and quarantined individuals will be provided with adequate necessities, such as food, clothing, and medication.

Further, said Brown, the law provides that should the governor declare a health emergency, he would have the power to “”use any force necessary”” and “”commandeer private property,”” and to unilaterally suspend the provisions of numerous regulatory statutes if they would “”hinder necessary action in coping with the emergency.””

The laws were last updated in 2003 when, with little debate, the General Assembly approved a bill based on model legislation promoted nationally as a way of preparing states for the possibility of bioterrorism. Rhode Island’s version, said Brown, failed to include many of the civil liberties safeguards that other states included when they passed similar “”bioterrorism”” laws. Instead, the new law expanded or kept in place broad governmental powers that in some cases date back to 1896.

Brown said the ACLU would urge state officials to support amendments to the law in the upcoming session to provide some of these basic protections.

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