Know your Rights: Criminal Justice in Rhode Island
Police Harassment (jump to section)
Criminal Justice | Criminal Sex | Rhode Island
Does Rhode Island have a sodomy law?
Rhode Island repealed its sodomy law in 1998. All of the criminal laws dealing with forcible sex, sex with minors, or public sexual activity apply equally regardless of the sex of the parties involved. Moreover, in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all sodomy laws, making clear that private, adult sexual conduct cannot be criminalized.
Does Rhode Island have any other criminal laws which are applied to LGBTQ+ people?
No. All laws apply equally to LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ people. Most people arrested for sexual activity are arrested for activity occurring out of doors. The “indecent exposure – disorderly conduct” law is a misdemeanor (for the first offense and a felony thereafter) and forbids:
“intentional, knowing or reckless exposure of the genitals to the view of another person under circumstances where the person’s conduct is likely to cause affront, distress or alarm to that person.”
Note that the offense has several elements:
- First, the exposure must be intentional, knowing or reckless in the mind of the perpetrator.
- Second, it must occur in circumstances where another person would likely be alarmed or distressed.
This law has been applied to people having sexual encounters in “public.” Bear in mind that sexual activity involving exposure of the genitals should not be illegal simply because it takes place outdoors, in parked cars, or on public lands. Instead, a great deal depends on the time of day, the level of seclusion (e.g. behind remote bushes or beyond fences) and the overall circumstances.
The State has a legitimate law enforcement interest in protecting the general public from open displays of sex— whether the sex is between people of the same sex or of a different sex. But socializing and the expression of same-sex affection that does not involve the touching of genitals or buttocks or exposure of those is not illegal, regardless of where it occurs. No one should be arrested or hassled for hand-holding, cruising, talking, flirting, or non-sexual touching.
As a practical matter, regardless of one’s rights, having sex outdoors is risky business. For one, based on numerous reports to us, we believe that some police will overlook sexual activity of non-gay people occurring outdoors, but arrest gay people engaged in sexual activity in the same types of venues. Another concern is that some police “hunt” for gay people having sex outdoors in park lands and rest areas— sometimes in uniform and sometimes as undercover decoys. Either way, a person can be charged with the disorderly conduct law and have the report of their arrest printed in the local newspaper.
Does Rhode Island have a sex offender registry law?
Yes. Every state now has such a law, although the terms differ from state to state. In Rhode Island, the law does not specify as registrable offenses any statutes of particular concern to gay people, such as the disorderly conduct law.
What types of crimes are deemed to be “sex offenses”?
As you would expect with a law designed to ensnare dangerous and violent predators, most of the crimes involve convictions for violent sexual offenses or offenses involving children. For a full list of sex offenses, see R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-37.1-2 and § 11-37.1-3.
How can I find what charges I have been convicted of?
You can contact the Department of the Attorney General, Attn.: Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI), Customer Service Center, 4 Howard Ave., Cranston, RI 02920 (located in the Pastore Center), or call (401) 274-4400. You can send a signed and notarized release for information along with a copy of your identification, self-addressed stamped envelope, and a check or money order for $5. See Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (BCI) | Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office (click on tab for “Background Checks”). You may also obtain a BCI printout by visiting the BCI at the Customer Service Center and possessing proper identification. You can pay by credit card, check or money order (no cash).
What obligations are imposed on “sex offenders”?
Most sex offenders will have to register annually with the local law enforcement agency and provide personal data, work information, and other identification. All offenders required to register must do so for ten years following their release from confinement or placement on parole, supervised release or probation and must update their information on a quarterly basis for the first two years. Those determined to be sexually violent predators or recidivists, and those who have been convicted of certain aggravated offenses on the other hand, must register and provide updated information on a quarterly basis for life.
Information in the registry can be freely shared with law enforcement agencies and government agencies performing confidential background checks but is generally not made available to the public. When dealing with an offender who is determined to have a moderate or high risk for re-offense, the community must be notified affirmatively and identifying information about the offender will be made available on the websites of the state police and court system, although there is a legal procedure whereby the offender can seek to block release of the information.
What is the age of consent for sexual activity?
Generally, the age of consent for sexual activity is 16.
Information About Rhode Island Sex Offender Registry: Rhode Island Sex Offender Registry.
Criminal Justice | Police Harassment | Rhode Island
I am often told by police to “move along” from public areas. Is that legal?
Not necessarily. If the area is public and not posted as having particular hours, you generally have a right to be there as long as you are not engaged in unlawful activity. Public places belong to everyone and are often also places of public accommodation subject to Connecticut’s non-discrimination law. Even if a police officer wants to deter crime, or suspects some kind of unlawful intent, they have no general right to request people to move from one place to another, unless there is unlawful conduct.
What are the general rules about interaction with police?
The presence of individuals who appear to be LGBTQ+– whether because such individuals are displaying symbols such as a rainbow flag or pink triangle or for any other reason– should not trigger any special scrutiny by a police officer.
Police may of course approach a person and make inquiries. But the fact that a person has been convicted of a past offense, or fails to respond, or responds in a way which does not satisfy the officer, cannot, without more, justify an arrest.
If an officer has a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, they may briefly detain an individual, or stop the person for purposes of investigation. However, an arrest can only occur upon “probable cause” that a crime has been committed.
What can I do if I believe I have been improperly treated by the police?
Complaints may be made to any individual police department for matters concerning its officers. Many departments have their own Internal Affairs Divisions which receive and investigate civilian complaints against police officers.
Complaints concerning the State Police in Rhode Island should be made to the Rhode Island State Police Office of Professional Standards, which you can contact in writing at 311 Danielson Pike, North Scituate, RI 02857, or by phone at (401) 444-1011. Citizen complaint forms are also available on the State Police website at RHODE ISLAND STATE POLICE Complaint / Compliment Form.
Complaints should include as much information as possible about the incident, including your name and contact information; the name, rank and badge number (if known) of the officer; the location, date, time and details of the incident; and the names and contact information of any witnesses. Please let GLAD know whenever you make a complaint so that we can track the responsiveness of the various police departments.
In some cases, an individual may decide to pursue a lawsuit— because of injuries, improper detainment, or for some other reason. These matters are highly specialized, and GLAD can make attorney referrals.
People can also attempt to seek help from the Attorney General’s Office, Criminal Division at (401) 274-4400.
ACLU Know Your Rights: Stopped by Police: Know Your Rights | Stopped by Police | American Civil Liberties Union.
Cases & Advocacy
To see Criminal Justice cases or advocacy which GLAD has been directly involved with in Rhode Island, go to: Cases and Advocacy – GLAD and under “By Issue” click on “Criminal Justice” and under “By Location” click on “Rhode Island.”
News & Press Releases
To see news and press releases about Criminal Justice in Rhode Island, go to: News & Press Releases – GLAD and under “By Issue” click on “Criminal Justice” and under “By Location” click on “Rhode Island.”