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Know Your Rights! People with Disabilities that are Encountered by the Police

Posted by Sara Cooper | Aug 16, 2023 | 0 Comments

The disability community often gets overlooked when it comes to reaching the goal of equitable systems of justice, especially when improving and ensuring protections when encountered by law enforcement.

Police interrogations and navigating the judicial process can be a violating and overwhelming experience for those who are not abled-bodied. Understanding and enforcing rights that are constitutionally bound are crucial in these moments that can determine how safeguarding your position as a citizen is.

According to the Innocence Project, “By delving into the legal framework that safeguards their rights, we hope to foster a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the disabled community during police interactions, and, ultimately, contribute to a more just and inclusive society that respects and celebrates the diversity of all its members.”

The process of a police interrogation should be fair and accessible. These rights are designed to accommodate individuals with disabilities and allow for them to effectively participate in the legal process. Some rights include:

  • Right to an interpreter

If you are deaf or hearing-impaired, you have the right to a sign language interpreter during police interrogations to facilitate effective communication. An interpreter helps ensure that you can understand the questions being asked and provide accurate responses.

  • Right to accessible documents

If you are visually impaired or blind, you are entitled to receive documents, such as written statements or legal documents, in accessible formats like Braille or large print, to review and understand the information provided.

  • Right to communication aids

Both hearing and vision-impaired individuals have the right to use communication aids or assistive technologies during interrogations. This may include communication boards speech-to-texts devices, or others tools that assist with effective communication.

  • Right to reasonable accommodations

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar laws in other countries require law enforcement agencies to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities. This ensures that you have equal access to the legal process and can fully participate in interviews and interrogations. Some accommodations that can be asked by you to the police are:

  • Speaking in a calm, quiet way;
  • Speaking slowly, clearly, and visibly for speech or lip reading;
  • Using simple commands, instead of complex sentences;
  • Stepping back to create space to have a full view of the body;
  • Allowing a person enough time to process and understand the officers' orders'.
  • Right to remain silent

You have the right to remain silent and not answer questions that may incriminate you, regardless of your disability. This right is protected by the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and similar provisions in other legal systems. If you want to remain silent, it's important that you communicate this clearly to police (directly or through an interpreter), because federal law (and many state laws) require that you invoke this right “unambiguously” in order for it to trigger your legal protections. You can say, for example, “I am going to exercise my right to remain silent” or “I'm going to remain silent.”

  • Right to legal representation

You have the right to legal representation during police investigations. Having an attorney present is the best way to help protect your rights and ensure that the interrogation is conducted properly. Police are not legally permitted to interrogate you without a lawyer present if you clearly invoke your right to an attorney. However, like your right to remain silent, federal and many state laws require that your request for a lawyer be clear and unambiguous. Saying something like: “I want to speak to a lawyer” or “I am not going to answer any questions without a lawyer here” should stop the interrogation.

Officers may or may not advise you of your right to silence and to an attorney (known your “Miranda” rights) and may ask you to sign a form waiving these rights. Whether you have already agreed to waive these rights, you can always invoke your rights to silence and right to an attorney at any time.

  • Rights if encountered at school

According to Disability Rights California, police officers regularly respond to minor, non-violent incidents at school, rather than parents or teachers. Unfortunately, Black students with disabilities are more likely to encounter police at school than other students. These encounters can hurt students.

Students with disabilities have a right to reasonable accommodations at school, including accommodations when interacting with police on campus. For example, school staff and police officers may be required to provide the student with an accommodation if it is in the student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan. School staff may also be required to make an accommodation if they know the student has a disability. Accommodations may include:

  • Calling the student's caretaker before talking to the student;
  • Ensuring the student's caretaker is there before searching the student or their belongings;
  • De-escalating the situation before calling the police; and
  • Ensuring that the student receives the right medical or mental health care before calling the police.

Remember, you have the right to remain silent and ask to speak with a lawyer. If you have a question about a police encounter, call our intake line at (800) 776-5746 or TTY (800) 719-5798. Here is information about DRC's excessive force lawsuit. Additional resources from Disability Rights California:

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