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Rhode Island Supreme Court Finds Lifer “Civil Death” Law Unconstitutional

by David M. Reutter

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island held on March 2, 2022, that the state’s civil death statute is “unconstitutional and in clear contravention of the provisions” of the state constitution.

The Court’s ruling was issued in the consolidated appeals of state prisoners Cody-Allen Zab and Jose Rivera. Both are serving life sentences with the state Department of Corrections (DOC), Zab for a 2008 murder and arson conviction and Rivera for a 2010 conviction of sexually assaulting a trio of developmentally disabled women. Both men alleged they were injured while in custody, filing negligence lawsuits in state superior court.

Both suits were dismissed based on G.L. 1956 § 13-6-1, Rhode Island’s civil death statute. That statute, which dates to 1909, provided that every person imprisoned “for life shall, with respect to all rights to property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.”

After a hearing, the superior court concluded the civil death statute barred Zab and Rivera’s negligence lawsuits. They appealed, arguing the statute impermissibly denied them the fundamental right to access the courts under article 1, § 5 of the state constitution.

Taking up the case, the state Supreme Court found that the challenge was not barred just because article 1, § 5 was not “self-executing” (i.e., not requiring further legislative action to define its implementation). So the Court then turned to whether the statute was constitutional.

It began by noting that the state constitution also provides for every Rhode Islander “to find a certain remedy, by having recourse to the laws, for all injuries or wrongs” and to “obtain right and justice freely, completely and without denial[.]” This right of access to the courts is a fundamental right, the Court observed, citing Palazzo v. Alves, 944 A. 2d 144 (R.I. 2008).

As the civil death statute extinguishes a life prisoner’s civil rights “by operation of law” and prevents such a prisoner from bringing any civil actions in state court, the Court concluded it plainly infringes on Plaintiff’s rights under article 1, § 5. Thus the Court determined that the “entirety” of the civil death statute was unconstitutional, and it therefore reversed the dismissal of Zab and Rivera’s negligence suits.

In a lengthy dissent, Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg noted that the Court had “never held that § 13-6-1 bars life prisoners from asserting all claims.” So the only question that should be considered is whether it barred Plaintiff’s negligence claims. Pointing then to a 2018 decision in which “a unanimous Court definitively held that the Superior Court did not have authority to hear the life-prisoner plaintiff’s negligence claim,” she said that “the facts of this case do not warrant a usurpation of the legislative power.”

Zab also had a federal claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that the superior court dismissed because he failed to sue a person, as required by that statute, and that decision the Court affirmed. Zab and Rivera were represented by attorney Sonja Deyoe, who has spent nearly a decade challenging the civil death law, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. See: Zab v. R.I. Dep’t of Corr., 269 A.3d 741 (R.I. 2022). 

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Related legal case

Zab v. R.I. Dep’t of Corr.