Parents of autistic children push for reduced penalty for assaulting police

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- The mother of an adult son with autism is among those supporting a bill to change the penalty for assaulting a law enforcement officer in Virginia. The same legislation has been criticized by some who fear lessening the stakes sends the wrong message about how the public should treat police.

The bill passed in the Senate but was killed by the Democrat-led House Courts of Justice Committee on Tuesday, disappointing advocates who say this change can’t wait any longer. 

“They don’t understand our lives,” said Teresa Champion, a Virginia Autism Project Board member. 

Champion said police have intervened in the past when her son James was in crisis and in need of hospital transport. James, 27, has autism and a brain inflammation disorder that impacts his behavior–at times contributing to aggressive confrontations with officers. Champion said he also has a tick that causes him to spit frequently, which could be considered an assault in the wrong situation.

“He doesn’t view his behavior as aggressive. He views their behavior as aggressive,” Champion said. “In his mind, my son is fighting for his life.” 

Champion lives in fear that James could end up with a felony charge because of an outburst. She said this would disrupt his ability to access critical social services already in short supply. 

“A felony charge endangers their whole network as little as it is in Virginia. They will lose everything. For what? For something that they can’t control,” Champion said. 

The bill from Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) would’ve eliminated the six-month mandatory minimum sentence for assaulting a police officer. He said the original version of the legislation would’ve made the default charge a misdemeanor instead. Surovell said the latest draft would’ve kept the felony starting point but–in certain circumstances–allowed charges to be reduced to misdemeanors.

Surovell said this would protect people with autism from excessive punishment, as well as those who resist police during a mental health crisis.

“This statute is a Venus flytrap right now for people who are mentally ill or have autism,” Surovell said. “It’s totally unfair.”

The bill also would’ve allowed a felony charge to be reduced to a misdemeanor if there was no bodily injury. According to Virginia State Police’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, nearly 70 percent of the 1,939 assaults on officers reported in 2019 did not result in any injury to the officer.

Surovell said this exception was intended to address minor incidents, pointing out that a person doesn’t have to actually touch an officer to be charged with assault.

“It [the bill] doesn’t make it legal to inflict an injury on anybody and it also doesn’t change the law of malicious wounding of a law enforcement officer, which carries a two year mandatory minimum sentence,” Surovell told the House committee on Tuesday.

Virginia State Police Association Executive Director Wayne Huggins said he felt better about the proposal after collaborating with Surovell, who made some changes based on his feedback.

While Huggins still has concerns about the elimination of the mandatory minimum, he said he could’ve lived with the bill if it weren’t for the language allowing assaults that don’t result in bodily injuries to be reduced to misdemeanors.

“If a person attempts to assault a police officer, we believe they should be charged with felony assault on a police officer irrespective of the result,” Huggins said.

Huggins supported another section of the bill that sought to eliminate conflicts of interest by preventing officers directly involved in these incidents from making the charging decision alone and potentially abusing the statute. It would’ve required an investigation by an independent police officer and the approval of the commonwealth’s attorney before felony charges could be brought, according to Surovell.

Despite the compromises, Republicans largely criticized the legislation, saying it sent the wrong message at a time when they believe the law enforcement profession as a whole is under attack.

When asked if he felt the bill was “anti-police,” Huggins said, “I do not think that is his intent but I do think that’s in large measure the result.” 

“It’s not an overstatement to say I have never seen the morale any lower throughout the law enforcement community than it is today,” he continued.

Though House Democrats sided with Republicans to kill the bill this time around, those who spoke in committee supported the spirit of the legislation and pledged to take up the issue again in 2021.

University of Richmond Law Professor Julie Ellen McConnell said, when that time comes, lawmakers should explicitly exclude children under 18 from being charged with felony assault on an officer.

Huggins and Surovell both raised concerns about a blanket approach when it comes to children.

McConnell said, at a minimum, this charge shouldn’t be brought in altercations between students and school resource officers.

“I’ve just seen a lot of cases where the law is used as a hammer when a hammer really isn’t what would be the appropriate response, like in a mental health crisis,” McConnell said.

McConnell said she has represented clients as young as 12 years old with this charge.

“It makes it impossible for that child to ever have any opportunity in life,” she said.

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