Individuals with Special Needs

Victims, Witnesses & Defendants With Special Needs

Whether as a victim, witness, or defendant, being involved in the criminal justice system is a daunting experience; particularly for individuals and families with special needs.

The world of criminal justice is well known by virtually everyone, but is well understood by few. Thankfully, most people rarely have to interact with the system. However, when you do, it can appear complex, complicated, disorganized, and downright scary. Now think how confusing and difficult the system can be if you are an individual with special needs that somehow gets drawn into it. It is critical that such individuals are educated about the criminal justice system so that when they do become involved in a case, matter, or trial, they are comfortable, can advocate effectively, be empowered to ask the right questions of the right people, understand the process, protect their rights, and seek out experienced counsel.

When a person charged with a crime suffers from a developmental disability such as Autism, Down Syndrome, Asperger’s Syndrome, or some other form of cognitive impairment, one of the most important decisions will be to identify and retain an experienced criminal defense attorney who is familiar with the unique situation of his or her client.

In addition, that lawyer must be able to communicate to the police, prosecutors and judges about these vulnerable and impressionable members of society. Strong advocacy in these circumstances is absolutely critical – whether the individual is being considered a victim, witness, target or defendant. While the public has increasingly learned about the prevalence of developmental disabilities, the criminal justice community still does not truly understand how these impairments affect conduct, negate intent and mitigate behavior.

For example, certain common characteristics of individuals with Autism such as those listed below often cause law enforcement to believe the individual is acting suspiciously, is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or is being intentionally evasive or lying. As a result, according to a recent study, individuals with Autism and other developmental disabilities are 7 times more likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system than typically developed individuals.

Characteristics of Developmental Disabilities:

  • Non-verbal
  • Unable to maintain eye contact leading to a mistaken belief of evasiveness
  • Sensory issues, potentially leading to sudden outbursts, creating a false sense of danger to law enforcement
  • Processing delays, leading to slow response time to questions, thus creating a false sense of evasiveness or impairment by drugs or alcohol
  • Inability to understand social rules and cues, leading to a mistaken belief of rudeness, disrespect or impairment by drugs or alcohol

Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of Autism where the individual may have a high cognitive intelligence, however, lack the ability to fully understand social cues and conventions. This can lead not only to a difficult time interacting with law enforcement, but also, an inability to control behavior that may be otherwise considered criminal.

Take for example, Darius McCullum, who by 2010, at the age of 45 had been arrested 27 times for various offenses involving the “theft” of New York City subway trains. McCullum, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, was infatuated with trains since childhood and always dreamt of being a train conductor. Unfortunately, his disorder prevented him from conducting himself within the social mores and laws of New York. As such, he has spent more than one-third of his life in jail.

It is critical that individuals with special needs who are enmeshed in the criminal justice system obtain an attorney who can zealously advocate on their behalf so that they can obtain the best result possible.

Some areas of particular concern within the criminal justice system for individuals with special needs such as Autism include:

Confessions – any interrogation by law enforcement of an individual with Autism or other developmental disability must be taken with a grain of salt. Their understanding of the situation and ability to comprehend the significance of the questioning may not be the same as others. They may shut down, become combative, or make a false confession in the hopes of pleasing the questioner. As such, all confessions must be examined carefully by a trained eye.

Concept of Criminal Intent – There are two parts to every crime. In the law they are known as the actus reus and the mens rea. Actus reus refers to the physical act of the crime – such as the taking of property from a store in a shoplifting case. Mens rea, on the other hand refers to the mental state the person had when they committed the act. Both are necessary for a crime to occur. Individuals with special needs often do not have the mens rea necessary to be convicted of a crime. Too often, in cases involving individuals with special needs, this aspect of the case is overlooked by attorneys and law enforcement. Because each case and situation is different, it is best to have the trained eye of an experienced criminal defense attorney advocate on your behalf.

Testimony – As with confessions, testifying at a criminal trial can be a harrowing experience for anyone, particularly someone with special needs. It is critical that a special needs defendant (or witness for that matter) be prepared for what lies ahead. Furthermore, a good defense attorney will also prepare the prosecutor and Judge about the unique aspects of the defendant/victim/witness.

Sentencing – The function of sentencing after conviction of a crime is two fold: Deterrence and Punishment. An effective attorney will educate the court and prosecutor about their client with special needs so a fair and just sentence may be imposed. If imprisonment is going to be imposed, it is also important that the defendant with special needs be placed in a proper custodial setting, so that they can receive proper treatment and cannot be harmed.

Reliability as a witness or victim – As discussed above, many facets of individuals with special needs may on the surface make it appear as if they are unreliable, dishonest or poor reporters of events. In reality, with proper understanding and education, in many situations, such individuals can fairly and accurately depict and report past events making them as credible of a witness as typically developing individuals.

When confronted with the criminal justice system parents, guardians, friends and individuals with disabilities can easily become overwhelmed by the process. The Special Needs Criminal Defense Attorneys at Crotty Saland PC are intimately familiar with the process and can successful advocate on your behalf, regardless of the criminal charge or situation.

If you or a loved one has special needs and becomes embroiled in the criminal justice system, as a victim, witness or defendant, you should seek out an attorney immediately. We at Crotty Saland PC understand how these cases are truly unique, requiring not only a keen knowledge of the criminal justice system, but also a deft touch, compassion and patience. We are proud to assist members of the special needs community in their time of need. Let Crotty Saland PC’s experience, advocacy and knowledge be your best defense.

Call the Special Needs Criminal Lawyers and former prosecutors at (212) 312-7129 or contact us online today.

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