Senate passes bills aimed at helping deaf, autistic people with police interactions

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    Bills seeking to alert law enforcement to the needs of those with communication barriers at traffic stops were unanimously approved Wednesday in the state Senate and are now headed to the Michigan House of Representatives. 

    Sens. Tom Barrett, Peter MacGregor and Curtis Hertel at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

    The two bills would allow those on the autism spectrum, deaf or facing other communication barriers to place to receive a “Communication Impediment” designation on documents to promote safe law enforcement interactions.

    Senate Bill 278, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), would allow vehicle owners the option to place a notice on their vehicle registration and/or license to warn law enforcement of a communication impediment. The designation is voluntary and a vehicle owner can place this designation for themselves or if a member of their family has a communication impediment. Those applying for chauffeurs licenses would be eligible, as well.

    Senate Bill 279, sponsored by state Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing), extends the option to place a notice of a communication impediment to enhanced driver’s licenses and state ID card applications.

    Law enforcement would be able to see a “Communication Impediment” designation when looking at the vehicle’s registration or a driver’s license through the Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN) commonly used at traffic stops. Using this volunteered information, officers can make informed decisions on how to proceed.

    Training and resources exist for law enforcement to be better prepared to navigate a communication gap, but these bills would help alert officers to the possible scenario.

    Michigan Capitol, Sept. 20, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

    Interactions between those with communication impediments and law enforcement can escalate due to lack of clarity. Research shows 1 in 5 young adults on the autistic spectrum will be stopped and questioned by police officers before age 21. 

    In the case of autistic man Arnaldo Rios Soto in 2016, a North Miami Police Officer said he mistook a toy Soto was holding for a gun and fired. The officer shot Soto’s caretaker Charles Kinsey, who attempted to communicate Soto’s inability to understand and comply with the officer.

    Those seeking the designation would have to provide the Secretary of State’s office with certification of a communication impediment signed by a physician or physician’s assistant, a certified nurse practitioner or Michigan licensed physical therapist. The certification has to clearly name the party with the impediment and state what the impediment is.

    Intentionally making a false statement in an effort to secure a “communication impediment” designation is a misdemeanor that could result in a $500 fine and/or 30 imprisonment.

    Anna Liz Nichols
    Anna Liz Nichols covers criminal justice, the environment and the Legislature. She has reported for several publications, including MLive and Michigan State University’s award-winning student paper, the State News, where she covered the many tendrils of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. She is finishing up a degree in journalism and environmental studies at Michigan State University, graduating May 2020.

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