Don’t take away rights of vulnerable people

  • By Andrée McLeod
  • Thursday, May 17, 2018 7:38am
  • Opinion

Lawmakers have again willfully and intentionally stripped away constitutionally protected rights of due process.

House Bill 312 is, in part, an act relating to arrest without a warrant for assault in the fourth degree at a health care facility. It impacts everyone, especially people who live with brain illness and cognitive impairments such as autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury and mental illness, among other brain illness.

In their attempt to deal with an increased crime rate, lawmakers found the courage to strip away the rights of individuals who are at their most vulnerable, when they’re brought to medical facilities experiencing confusion and severe bouts of psychosis, mania, disorientation and other symptoms of brain and cognitive impairments unrelated to substance abuse.

The sponsors of HB 312, Reps. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, and Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, drafted and defended their egregious bill with talking points that showed they lacked an understanding of the nature of brain illness. This could have easily been remedied by first getting input from experts at state and nationally-based organizations who serve and advocate for folks who live with brain illness and cognitive impairments in order to give them a clearer understanding.

They further failed to present substantiated data that showed who commits these assaults (co-workers, patients, family members, others) and failed to explain the root causes of these assaults.

The fact that groups who serve folks with brain illness were not contacted before the bill was introduced, and the lack of substantiated data, makes one wonder what special interest groups these representatives serve.

Earlier this week HB 312 morphed into an omnibus-like, behemoth of a bill when legislators decided to cobble together language from three other languishing bills. This was all designed to make them look like crime-busting McGruffs.

In spite of the fact that the Alaska National Alliance of Mental Illness recently provided language that could help guide how to protect people who live with brain illness and cognitive impairments from the detrimental and damaging consequences of undue arrest without a warrant, legislators decided to forego protections for a vulnerable population of our community. They voted for the modified bill and sent it on to the governor where it awaits his signature.

Buried within HB 312, and missing from the media clamor, is the stripping away of constitutionally protected rights of due process of individuals that relate to arrests.

By law, warrants have to be obtained before an arrest is made. HB 312 unilaterally removes that requirement for police officers to obtain warrants before making arrests when fourth degree assaults are committed at medical facilities, which includes subjective behavior like threats.

With this bill, a vulnerable population has lost its right to obtain treatment in a medical environment without the fear of arrest. It criminalizes serious brain and mental illness and subjects folks to disparate treatment because they’re perceived criminally when they exhibit symptoms related to their brain illness, instead of clinically, like other people who present themselves with a medical crisis unrelated to the brain.

We are all one accident away from a brain illness: HB 312 impacts every one of us. If you were taken to an emergency room after a ski fall or sport injury, or trekking, or bike accident or if you’re a family member who’s accompanying someone who’s had a heart attack or other emergency, and you raise your voice or become agitated In the midst of all the confusion, disorientation, fear and chaos, you can now get arrested without the protections and rights of due process. With the passage of HB 312, these kinds of behaviors which fit the definition of fourth-degree assault might just “randomly” get you arrested without a warrant. Imagine, one trip to the hospital and you could end up a criminal with a criminal record.

The irony should not be lost that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. At a time when we should discuss and support improvements to Alaska’s mental health system of care, legislators decided to strip folks of certain inalienable rights as they criminalize symptoms of brain illness.

• Andree McLeod lives in Anchorage.

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