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Special Needs Individuals and the Law

Written by Moses & Rooth Attorneys at Law on May 23, 2017

The media and the Internet recently exploded over a video showing a police officer arresting a 10-year-old special needs child in Okeechobee County, Florida, on an outstanding felony warrant. The child was seen screaming, “I don’t want to be touched” as a sheriff’s deputy handcuffed the child and took him to a juvenile detention facility, where he spent the night behind bars. His mother, who recorded the video of the arrest, was seen asking the officer, “Does he have the same rights as an adult?”

Autistic Boy Faces Third-Degree Felony Charge

The child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a range of metal conditions that make it difficult for individuals to communicate and form relationships with other people. Children with autism often exhibit behavioral problems. In this case, the child “allegedly threatened to kill” one of his teachers last year, according to the Washington Post, and at one point was removed from a classroom for being “disruptive” and “hitting other students.”

During this removal, the child allegedly “started kicking and scratching and punching” his teacher. The teacher then filed a criminal complaint. This led to a third-degree felony charge against the child for “battery on a school employee.” The child’s mother said she was never told of this outstanding warrant until her son was arrested some time later.

Are Special Needs Children at Greater Risk of Legal Problems?

While this particular case made news, there are many others that do not. One Florida disability rights lawyer told CNN that “disabled students being arrested for disciplinary offenses [is] all too common” in Florida. This attorney said that he represented a six-year old child who was forcibly held in seclusion under a 72-hour psychiatric hold.

CNN noted that special needs children are statistically more likely to be arrested in Florida: According to one study, while only 14 percent of students in the state “have disabilities, they make up 19 percent of all arrests.”

The Daily Beast–citing the recent Florida arrest as well as the handcuffing of an 8-year-old Texas student with attention deficit disorder–added that police officers are also more prevalent in schools today, putting special needs kids at further risk of early exposure to abusive law enforcement.

Protecting Your Child From the Florida Juvenile Justice System

Florida gives prosecutors a great deal of discretion in prosecuting children. In many cases, a teenager can be sent directly to adult court without a hearing before a judge. On the other hand, many prosecutors are willing to keep children with special needs out of the juvenile justice system through referral to a “diversion program.”

But even that may not be fair or just in many cases. The mother of the 10-year-old autistic child told the Washington Post she refused an offer of diversion “because he didn’t do anything wrong.” She said prosecutors know her son has a disability yet still insist on treating him as a criminal.

Unfortunately, the reality is that when an adult files a criminal complaint against a special needs child, the judicial system has to take it seriously. As a parent, you need to understand this and act accordingly. An experienced Orlando juvenile crimes defense attorney can guide you and your child through the legal process and work to reach a favorable outcome. Call the offices of Moses & Rooth, Attorneys at Law, today at 407-377-0160 if your child has been charged with a crime and you need to speak with a lawyer right away.

Posted Under: Juvenile Offenses

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