Hate Crimes, Sex Laws and Police in Rhode Island

Sexual orientation and gender identity are protected characteristics under Rhode Island’s hate crimes laws.

Questions & Answers (Accurate as of February 26, 2014)

Hate Crimes & Violence

How does Rhode Island define a hate crime?

In Rhode Island, a hate crime is “any crime motivated by bigotry and bias, including, but not limited to threatened, attempted, or completed acts that appear after investigation to have been motivated by racial, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or expression, or disability prejudice.”89  “Gender identity or expression” was added in 2012.

In order to track hate crimes, the State has also set up a reporting system so that incidents alleged are centrally recorded.90 All police departments within the state are required to have training on identifying, responding to and reporting hate crimes,91 and must report monthly the occurrence of such crimes to the state police, who must maintain a permanent record of the offenses, categorized by community of occurrence, type of offense, and target.92

Does Rhode Island have increased sentencing for hate crimes?

Yes, Rhode Island law establishes additional penalties for crimes motivated by hatred or animus toward the victim's actual or perceived religion, ethnicity, race, gender, or sexual orientation.94 Even though “gender identity or expression” was added in 2012 as one of the “protected distinguishing characteristics,” it was not added to the hate crimes sentencing statute. 

Where can I call if I think I’ve been a victim of a hate crime?

Begin by contacting the local police. Police officers do not actually charge people with hate crimes, but will need to provide the prosecutor with evidence that the crime was motivated by bias, so be sure to explain all of the factors that make you think this was a hate crime. You may also contact the criminal division of the Attorney General’s office at (401) 274-4400.

For support and advocacy, contact: Day One, Sexual Assault and Trauma Resource of Rhode Island, (401) 421-4100 or (800) 494-8100.

What other options do I have if I think I have been a victim of a hate crime?

In addition to pursuing your rights in the criminal justice system, you can contact the Office of the Civil Rights Advocate of the Attorney General’s Office at (401) 274-4400. The Civil Rights Advocate is authorized to receive complaints, to conduct investigations, education and training, and to bring civil actions for injunctions or other equitable relief to address physical threats, trespassing, property destruction, or harassment that interfere “with the exercise or enjoyment by any other person of rights secured by the United States Constitution or the laws of the United States or of rights secured by the Constitution of Rhode Island or laws of the state.”95 In addition, a fine of up to $5,000 may be imposed.

An injunction under this provision does not prevent you, depending on the circumstances, from seeking monetary damages for harms you experienced from the crime committed against you.

In what ways might the recently passed federal hate crimes law help to investigate and prosecute hate crimes?

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act96 was passed by Congress on October 22, 2009 and was signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009.  It expands the 1969 United States federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

First, and perhaps foremost, the Act allows local and state law enforcement agencies to apply for the following federal assistance from the U.S. Attorney General:

  • investigative, technical, forensic or prosecutorial support for criminal investigations and prosecutions,
  • grants for extraordinary expenses associated with the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, and
  • grants to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles.

In providing assistance to local and state authorities, the priorities are hate crimes:

  • where the offender(s) has committed crimes in more than one state, or
  • that occur in rural areas which do not have the resources needed to prosecute such crimes.


Second, for hate crimes that in some way involve crossing state or national borders, or involve or affect interstate commerce, and where a state does not have jurisdiction or has requested federal assumption of jurisdiction, or where the federal government feels that justice has not been served or that U.S. prosecution is in the public interest,  the Act authorizes the federal government to prosecute the case.

The Act also requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track statistics on hate crimes on the basis of gender and gender identity (statistics for the other groups are already tracked) and on crimes committed by and against juveniles.  This is the first federal law to explicitly extend legal protections to transgender persons.

Criminal Sex Laws

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.

Does Rhode Island have any other criminal laws which are applied to gay people?

No. All laws apply equally to gay and non-gay people.

Most people arrested for sexual activity are arrested for activity occurring out of doors. The disorderly conduct law is a misdemeanor and forbids (a) intentional, knowing or reckless (b) exposure of the genitals to the view of others (c) under circumstances where the person’s conduct is likely to cause affront, distress or alarm to other persons.97

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. Thus, the law should not be applied to consensual sexual activity.

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 expressions 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, foot-tapping, 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 his or her arrest printed in the local newspaper.

Does Rhode Island have a “sex offender registry” type of 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, 11-37.1-3.

How can I find out what charges I have been convicted of?

You can contact the Department of the Attorney General, Attn.:  Bureau of Criminal Identification, 150 S. Main St., Providence, RI 02903, or call (401) 421-5268. 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. You may also obtain a BCI printout by visiting the BCI at the Dep’t of the Attorney General and possessing proper identification and $5 check or money order.

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.98 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.99

Information in the registry can be freely shared with law enforcement agencies, but is generally not made available to the public.100 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.101

What is the age of consent for sexual activity?

Generally, the age of consent for sexual activity is 16.102

Police Harassment

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 any unlawful activity. Public places belong to everyone, and are likely also places of public accommodation to which anti-discrimination rules apply. Even if police officers want to deter crime, or suspect 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.103

What are the general rules about interaction with police?

The presence of individuals who appear to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender — 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, other than a concern for the safety and well-being of those persons that the officer would have for any other person.

Police may, of course, approach a person, and make inquiries. If an officer has “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, he or she may briefly detain an individual, or stop the person for purposes of investigation.104

Police sometimes detain a person whom they believe has committed or is about to commit a crime. If the person is not charged with a crime, he or she must be released after two hours.105

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 at in writing at 311 Danielson Pike, North Scituate, RI 02857, or by phone at (401) 444-1004. Citizen complaint forms are also available on the State Police website. 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.


89 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 42-28-46 (a)(2).

90 R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-28-46 (b).
91 R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-28.2-8.1.
92 R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-28-46 (b).

94 R.I. Gen. Laws § 12-19-38 (a).
95 R.I. Gen. Laws, §§ 42-9.3-1; 42-9.3-2.
96See H.R. 2647 at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/F?c111:6:./temp/~c111X7TYvf:e1999565:
97 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 11-45-1 (a)(8).
98 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 11-37-1.3 (a).
99 R.I. Gen. Laws, §§ 11-37.1-4.
100 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 11-37.1-11.
101 R.I. Gen. Laws, §§ 11-37.1-12, -13.
102 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 11-37-6.
103 Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116, 126 (1958).
104 State v. Abdullah, 730 A.2d 1074 (R.I. 1997); State v. Bennett, 430 A.2d 424 (R.I. 1981); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 16 (1968).  An arrest can only occur upon “probable cause” that a crime has been committed.  R.I. Const., Art. I, § 6.
105 See R.I. Gen. Laws, § 12-7-1.