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Disabilities and Arrests: Your Rights

Law enforcement arresting a person
By FindLaw Staff on May 04, 2021 11:17 AM

Law enforcement can arrest anyone if they have a warrant, probable cause, or see a crime being committed. But too often, circumstances are misunderstood, de-escalation tactics are not used, or implicit bias leads to a mishandled arrest.

One such situation recently happened to a 73-year old woman with dementia in Colorado. The officers involved are now under investigation.

ADA Accommodations During Arrests

People under age 30 with disabilities are 44% more likely to be arrested, according to 2017 research from the American Journal of Public Health. This statistic includes emotional, sensory, physical, and cognitive disabilities that are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA requires "reasonable accommodations" for people with disabilities under Title II. Typically, reasonable accommodations can include:

  • Respecting comfort zones of distressed individuals
  • Using non-threatening communication
  • Defusing the situation by letting the person calm down
  • Accurately assessing whether the person is any harm to themselves or others
  • Cooperating with staff at group homes or other facilities that understand the individual's needs
  • Law enforcement receiving training in these accommodations and how to assess whether an individual may have a disability

Police Acting Without Knowledge of a Disability

Some behavior stemming from a disability may come across as suspicious, such as public disruption or disorientation. Because of the doctrine of qualified immunity, police generally cannot be held liable in court for doing their job.

However, if they are arresting, or have arrested, an individual protected under the ADA, the rules change. If police officers do anything that seems unreasonable to a person with a disability, there is a good chance the case will go to trial despite qualified immunity.

ADA Protection During Police Encounters

If you have rights under the ADA, you can expect the following during interactions with police:

  • Reasonable accommodations during all interactions
  • Appropriate communications such as providing a sign language interpreter
  • Aid from a lawyer and proper disability services throughout the case
  • Necessary accommodations during an arrest, booking, or while in jail
  • Communications help during 911 operator phone calls
  • Emergency medical services as necessary
  • No discrimination based on disability status (or discrimination because you are associated with someone with a disability)
  • Transportation of wheelchairs, movement aids, or service animals during arrest

See the complete list of accommodations from ADA.gov's Q&A covering law enforcement. If you believe your arrest, or the arrest of a loved one, violated any rights under the ADA, speak with an experienced civil rights attorney.

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