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Ohio bill creates communication-disability registry for police

Legislators took a big step toward improving relations between LE and drivers diagnosed with communication disabilities, such as autism, PTSD and hearing impairments

By David Moser

All law enforcement officers know how quickly a traffic stop can escalate into an unexpectedly serious situation. Emotions flare, signals get crossed, tensions rise and what may have been a “routine” encounter transitions into a potential arrest or even use of force. When communication barriers enter the mix, these interactions may be even more aggravated. Fortunately, the recent passing of Ohio’s House Bill 115 will help avoid potentially harmful situations between police and drivers with communication disabilities.

Under House Bill 115, which took effect in August 2018, any person with a communication disability who regularly drives or rides as a passenger may voluntarily submit a verification form identifying them as having a communication disability. This information is then made available to state and local law enforcement officers through the Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS).

Communication disabilities, ranging from hearing impairment to PTSD to autism, are increasingly becoming more widely understood in American culture and particularly in the law enforcement community. With more available and accessible support services for these individuals, strengthening police-driver interactions was a clear and necessary next step.

The law – jointly sponsored by State Representatives Theresa Gavarone and Scott Wiggam – creates a program that has been a long time coming. The law took well over one year to pass through the legislative process, receiving improvements along the way.

How individuals enroll in the communication-disabilities program

Under House Bill 115, any person with a communication disability who drives or is a regular passenger can voluntarily submit a form verifying their diagnosis. A physician’s signature is required to validate that the individual does have a communication disability, and a parent or guardian’s signature is also required if the driver is under the age of 18.

The form is then uploaded into a database that triggers a notification in LEADS, showing any police officer making a traffic stop that this individual has a communication disability that may affect their forthcoming interaction. This notice pops up as soon as the officer runs vehicle plates and/or driver’s licenses through their mobile data terminal. Only general information flagging a communication disability is disclosed; the driver’s exact diagnosis remains private.

With this information in hand, officers can immediately tap into their training to better communicate with the enrolled individual once they make contact during the stop. Specialized trainings are offered throughout the state, setting forth recommended protocol and tips for law enforcement interactions with disabled Ohioans. Trainings continue to be developed to help law enforcement officers recognize how and when a communication disability may impact a stop.

Traffic stops involving these communication barriers require a unique and different approach from stops with the rest of the public. The new LEADS registry, coupled with this training, should improve effective traffic stops across the board and officers and drivers with communication disabilities alike should all benefit from safer interactions provided by the program.

House Bill 115 has provided only the first step and, since enrollment is voluntary, spreading awareness is crucial to sustaining and growing the program. Drivers who may have trouble speaking during a stop due to hearing impairment or another disability such as autism, are strongly urged to enroll. Law enforcement agencies can promote the program via widespread marketing and social media campaigns distributed to the public.

It is just as important for community agencies to join in spreading the word – police departments, prosecutor’s offices, mental health boards and county boards of developmental disabilities are just a few key players involved in the ongoing goal to bolster police-civilian relations regarding communication disabilities.

To sign up, individuals should contact their local Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) branch or stop by in person. Verification forms are also available online here. According to the Ohio Department of Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, the information provided will be protected by the state firewall, is not a public record and drivers may opt out of the database at any time. Additional, updated information can be found online here.

So far, the new registry created by House Bill 115 has been met with encouragement and enthusiasm. The program facilitates improved community relations and helps avoid past cases of miscommunication that has led to unnecessary arrests. A number of previous cases across the state involved officers who initiated a traffic stop and soon observed unusual physical cues from drivers. These cues led the officers to believe the driver was possibly impaired by drugs or alcohol, when in fact they were indicators of a diagnosed communication disability, like autism. Following field sobriety testing, the drivers would be placed under arrest for Operating a Vehicle under the Influence (OVI), only for the officers to learn later that the individuals were not under the influence of any substance whatsoever.

Looking to the future, the new communication-disability registry should prevent these types of situations. Education is the primary fix to the problem. By educating law enforcement officers, drivers with communication disabilities and the public, House Bill 115 bridges a previous communication gap that is slowly fading from the rearview mirror.

About the author
David C. Moser is an associate at Isaac Wiles Burkholder & Teetor, LLC (Columbus) where he focuses his practice on representing clients in the public sector. He handles misdemeanor prosecutions as an assistant prosecutor for several localities and outside of the courtroom, he regularly assists government entities with employment disputes, day-to-day legal advice, and civil litigation.