Florida passes bill to protect people with autism when being interviewed by the police

Map of Florida, USAFlorida will soon become the first state to implement protections for people with autism spectrum disorders in police interrogations.

Under the Wes Kleinert Fair Interview Act [PDF], signed by Governor Rick Scott on April 1, people with ASD will have to right to be accompanied when being interviewed by law enforcement, whether it’s by a parent, guardian, friend or mental health specialist.

The bill passed overwhelmingly in both chambers, by a vote of 32 to 2 in the state Senate and 115 to 1 in the state House.

“People with autism or autism spectrum disorders may not understand that they have rights,” Rep. Bill Hager told Floridapolitics.com. “Being interviewed by police can be a frightening experience and having a parent or family member, who is familiar to them, even though they are not minors, will help them to process what is occurring.”

The ARC, a prominent disability rights group, expressed cautious optimism, but worried the bill has too many loopholes. Specifically, the ARC criticized the bill for only pertaining to people with ASD, as opposed to all people intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Among its other criticisms, the ARC also argued that the protections should be automatic. Under the bill, people with autism must request that the mental health professional be present, and law enforcement is only required to make a “good faith effort” to ensure the request is granted.

“In interacting with police, individuals with disabilities are particularly vulnerable – it does not matter if they are witnesses, victims, or suspects,” the ARC wrote on its blog. “In these situations, protections for people with I/DD ensures that each conversation with law enforcement and other criminal justice professionals is fair and understood equally by all parties. However, effective legislation must be thought through carefully in order to ensure its success.

“While this legislation is a positive step in the right direction, advocates must diligently work to make sure necessary improvements are made.”