For this weekly feature, the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD) profiles a noteworthy bill that is currently going through the legislative process. The bill may relate directly to TCDD’s Public Policy Priorities or another disability-related issue.
Bill: Senate Bill (SB) 976, relating to the notification of a peace officer through an indication associated with vehicle registration that a person has a health condition or disability that may impede effective communication.
Bill author: Sen. Bryan Hughes, Senate District 1 (Tyler, Texarkana, Paris)
Coauthor: Sen. Carol Alvarado, Senate District 6 (Houston)
The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) currently offers the Communication Impediment with a Peace Officer (CIPO) program, which requires driver license applications to include a space for applicants to voluntarily list any health condition that may affect their ability to communicate with a peace officer. Such conditions might include autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, stuttering or hearing impairments, Asperger syndrome, or others, and the program is meant to discourage miscommunication and/or escalation of an encounter with a law enforcement official. CIPO was implemented in 2004, following the passage of House Bill (HB) 1330 in the 78th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature.
What does the bill do?
SB 976 would build on the model of the CIPO program by requiring the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TxDMV) to include a space on vehicle registration applications for applicants to voluntarily indicate any health condition or disability that may impede their ability to effectively communicate with a peace officer. TxDMV would share that information with DPS, who would then include this data in the Texas Law Enforcement Communications System (TLECS) to alert peace officers making traffic stops that the vehicle operator has a condition that impedes their ability to effectively communicate. Tying the notification to a vehicle registration would give peace officers insight regarding an individual’s communication impediment before ever interacting with them, further mitigating the chance of misinterpretation of their messages or behavior.
Under the terms of the bill, TxDMV may request that a person provide verification of a condition that has been voluntarily indicated. If requested by the department, any physical health condition impeding communication must be evidenced by a written statement from a licensed physician, while a mental health condition would require a written statement from a licensed physician, a licensed psychologist, or a non-physician mental health professional such as a licensed clinical social worker.
SB 976 would prohibit TxDMV from issuing, without the consent of the vehicle operator, a license plate that indicates the presence of a communication impediment. The bill would also prohibit TxDMV from providing to DPS information that shows the type of health condition or disability experienced by the person.
Sen. Bryan Hughes is the author of SB 976. The bill relates to the notification of a peace officer through an indication associated with vehicle registration that a person has a health condition or disability that may impede effective communication.
Where is the bill in the process?
On March 27, SB 976 received a public hearing before the Senate Committee on Transportation. The video of that hearing can be found here and discussion on the bill begins at the 30:23 mark. After being reported favorably out of the committee, the bill was approved by the full Texas Senate on a vote of 31-0. SB 976 was recently voted out of the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety and will now be sent to the House Local and Consent Calendars Committee to be scheduled for consideration by the full Texas House.
Who supports the bill and why?
The following comments were taken from the bill’s public hearing on March 27:
- Aspergers101: Jennifer Allen, Founder and CEO of Aspergers101, offered verbal remarks in support of SB 976, sharing her belief that the bill can save lives by avoiding the escalation of situations due to miscommunication. Allen suggested that it works in the best interest of both the individual with the communicative impediment and police officers, and cited the support of the Houston and San Antonio Chiefs of Police. Allen also submitted written testimony, which documented the support her organization’s 600-plus members have for the bill.
- Aspergers101: Samuel Allen, Spokesperson for Aspergers101, shared his personal experience in voicing support for the bill. He testified that his autism diagnosis does not impede his ability to drive, but it does affect his ability to communicate with others, especially in high-stress encounters like traffic stops. Allen listed potential points of miscommunication with an officer – increased anxiety could be misinterpreted as suspicious behavior, answering an officer’s metaphor literally might be seen as an act of defiance, and slowly processing what is happening could be perceived as offering resistance. He acknowledged that there are currently bumper stickers that can be bought to indicate communicative impairment, but that they leave the driver exposed to ridicule from the public; this vulnerability could be avoided, he believes, by having impairments communicated directly and discreetly to officers through TLECS.
- GCPD: Ron Lucey, Executive Director for the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities (GCPD), testified as a resource witness for SB 976. He stated that the bill is consistent with GCPD’s goals and specifically pointed to GCPD’s support in 2016 for the Driving with Autism Program that now posts relevant information in DPS offices. Lucey also mentioned a GCPD survey of Texans with disabilities which identified broad, sweeping support for SB 976.
- TxDMV: Jeremiah Kuntz, Director of the Vehicle Titles and Registration Division of TxDMV, stated that initial concerns from the department over the retention of health information from individuals have been addressed by revisions to SB 976. He stated that it would be possible for TxDMV to provide a non-descriptive check box for applicants with little cost to the state.
- TCDD: Linda Logan, Public Policy Specialist for TCDD, submitted written testimony in which she acknowledged the benefit of a system that notifies officers about communication impediments before they approach the vehicle, which could avert a miscommunication before it starts. However, she pointed out that, until examining a driver’s license, there would be no way to know whether the person who registered the car is the one driving it at the time. Logan also drew attention to a provision in SB 976 that would allow for a condition to be verified by a larger set of providers than the current CIPO program and suggested that there should be a standardization between the two.
Who opposes the bill and why?
No opposition to the bill has been identified at this time.
How much will the bill cost?
According to the Legislative Budget Board, SB 976 will have no significant fiscal impact.
Is there a House companion to the bill?
An identical bill, HB 2644 by Rep. Mando Martinez, received a public hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety on April 17. It was left pending and no further action was taken on the bill.
A similar piece of legislation, HB 1845 by Rep. Stephanie Klick, was referred to the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, but it was not scheduled for a public hearing. Rep. Klick is listed as a Joint Author to Rep. Martinez’ HB 2644.
For the latest information about where SB 976 is in the process, follow the bill on the Texas Legislature Online. To receive future legislative updates from TCDD, subscribe to TCDD eNews or follow us on Twitter.