State Supreme Court: ‘Civil death’ law is unconstitutional

March 2, 2022 GMT

An archaic Rhode Island law that says prison inmates serving life sentences are considered civilly dead in terms of their civil rights is unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision released Wednesday.

The 1909 law says inmates serving a life term at the state prison, the Adult Correctional Institutions, are deemed dead “with respect to property rights, the bond of matrimony and other civil rights, ” as if they had actually died when convicted.

The court in a 4-1 ruling said the statute denies inmates of a fundamental right.

“The civil death statute deprives those persons imprisoned at the ACI for life of their right to bring civil actions in our state courts,” the majority opinion written by Justice Erin Lynch-Prata said. “It is clear to us that the right infringed upon by the civil death statute is the right to seek redress for any type of injury or complaint, thereby unconstitutionally denying the plaintiffs the very right to gain access to the courts.”

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The challenge to the law was brought by inmates Cody-Allen Zab and Jose Rivera, represented by attorney Sonja Deyoe, and backed the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. The ACLU said it believes Rhode Island is the only state still enforcing such a law.

“Today’s decision from the court affirms the basic principle of our judicial system that the doors to justice shall remain open to all,” Deyoe said in a statement.

Deyoe, who has spent nearly a decade challenging the law, said in a telephone interview she cried for the first time in years when she read the opinion.

“The very basis of our system is the ability to go to court to challenge the government,” she said.

Zab was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree murder and arson. Rivera received a life sentence plus 16 years after he was convicted of sexually assaulting three developmentally disabled women.

They both sued the Department of Correction in 2017, alleging they suffered injuries while behind bars due to the department’s negligence. Zab alleged that he suffered a severe burn and permanent disfigurement on his arm when he made contact with an exposed hot water pipe located adjacent to telephones used by inmates.

Rivera claimed he broke his ankle when he slipped on an untreated icy walkway after being ordered by prison employees.

A Superior Court judge concluded that the civil death statute barred their claims, so they appealed to the high court.

The Department of Corrections maintained that the law was constitutional, furthering the goals of punishment and deterrence.

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“Above all, we are charged with the safety and security of those under our custody, and just like with any other decision, we respect and follow the ruling of the Court, and the State’s legislative mandates,” J.R. Ventura, a spokesperson for the department said in a statement.

Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg wrote the dissenting opinion, saying changing the civil death law should be up to the state legislature, not the court.

Another Rhode Island inmate went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the law, but the court in March 2020 declined to hear the case

It was not the first time the law had come up in a case involving Zab. The state Supreme Court in 2019 rejected an appeal from Zab who asked for his marriage record to be sealed because he’s considered dead under state law.

He argued his record should be expunged because as someone considered “civilly dead” he can’t get married. The court ruled that he has no right to litigate this issue.