Story at a glance

  • Reginald "Neli" Latson was charged in 2010 with assaulting a sheriff's deputy who grabbed him while he waited for a library to open.
  • Latson was given a conditional pardon in 2015 but remains under legal supervision.
  • Advocates are appealing to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam for a full pardon.

As protests against racism and police brutality continue in cities around the country, the 10-year-old case of an autistic Virginia man convicted of assaulting an officer highlights the issues disabled Black people in particular face in the justice system as advocates petition for him to receive a full pardon.

In May 2010, Reginald “Neli” Latson, an autistic Black 18-year-old, sat outside a library in Stafford, Va., waiting for it to open when a local called the sheriff’s department to report a “suspicious male, possibly in possession of a gun.” A deputy arrived on scene and, despite determining Latson was unarmed, grabbed him as he tried to walk away.

Latson reacted “with a fight-or-flight response, which is a common response for individuals with [autism spectrum disorder] who are faced with these types of situations,” according to a civil rights lawsuit filed by Latson, and he was convicted of assaulting the deputy.

The lawsuit, whose defendants include the Virginia Department of Corrections and several individual administrators at the facility where Latson was held, alleges that he was held in solitary confinement on several occasions, including in one case for more than 100 days, and that during a mental health crisis on one occasion he was Tasered and strapped to a restraint chair “unable to move, eat, or use the restroom, for more than nine hours.” The suit was dismissed under the doctrine of qualified immunity, which holds that government officials cannot be held civilly liable for actions performed on duty.

In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) granted Latson a conditional pardon, saying in a tweet last January that Latson “never should have been sent to jail.”

Some disability advocates, however, have argued Latson needs a full pardon for any healing to begin.

“A conditional pardon means that Latson is under constant supervision and subject to arrest and incarceration should he fail to comply with any of the conditions of the pardon over a ten-year period,” Shira Wakschlag, legal advocacy director for The Arc, which has petitioned Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to pardon Latson, told Changing America. “This imposes constant anxiety and trauma given Latson’s prior interactions with law enforcement and corrections officers.”

These arrangements, even for people who are no longer incarcerated, can be a minefield, Elizabeth Kelley, a criminal justice attorney with a practice focused on representing disabled people, told Changing America.

“Generally speaking, we as criminal defense attorneys know that the longer someone is subject to court-ordered supervision, the greater the chance that a person is going to commit a technical or a substantive violation,” she said. “In the case of this young man, the collateral consequences of his conviction are unfortunately probably going to haunt him forever.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office told Changing America that “Governor Northam and his team have been actively reviewing Mr. Latson's case, with a goal of ensuring justice and continuity of healthcare services.”

Changing America has reached out to the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office for comment. The Virginia Department of Corrections declined comment for this story.

The case illustrates how the criminal justice system can be particularly fraught for Black disabled people, Sam Crane, legal director for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), told Changing America, beginning with Latson’s behavior being viewed as “suspicious.”

“Once [autistic people] do interact with police, we may have difficulty communicating, understanding instructions, and responding to instructions - and we may panic when police come into our personal space,” Crane said.

“When interviewed by police, we may not understand our rights and may respond in a way that is seen as a sign of guilt. Attorneys may not understand our communication or access needs, making it hard for us to navigate the criminal process,” she added. “Finally, autistic people often face significant dangers in prison, as Neli's case illustrated - autistic people are often subjected to violence, restraints, and solitary confinement. All of these disparities are, of course, even starker with respect to autistic people of color.”

Joe Smith, an autistic photographer and worker at a Pittsburgh-area Giant Eagle grocery store, told Changing America that like many Black men, his parents gave him the so-called “Talk” about how to handle himself in police encounters. “Remain calm and do what they say, that prevents me from getting killed,” he said.

However, Smith added, law enforcement “need more training with how to deal with people on the spectrum, of any skin color.” Autistic people frequently calm or soothe themselves with repetitive behaviors, he noted, which some police aren’t prepared for.

“Certain behaviors help people with autism calm down, like spinning, and some people don’t get that,” Smith told Changing America. “You hear people on the news with autism get arrested for doing something suspicious … there’s a lot of stigma going around.”

Research by the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2016 indicates disabled people can be at particular risk during police encounters. According to the research, between a third and half of people killed by law enforcement are disabled, and the majority of people killed in high-profile use-of-force cases are disabled, both in cases where officers are found to have violated policies and in cases where they are legally exonerated.

The white paper also notes that among numerous disabled Black people killed by police or in police custody, their disabled status was seldom noted despite widespread media coverage of their deaths, including Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Kajieme Powell.

“The case of Neli is a good example of someone acting out and people misinterpreting what’s going on with very serious consequences,” Kelley told Changing America. “As they get older, kids with disabilities, in particular within the minority community, are punished for acting out, and if in fact they get ensnared within the criminal justice system they may not have attorneys who… do not properly advocate in front of prosecutors or the court and a cycle often begins.”

Cases like Latson’s in particular illustrate one of the most common arguments by advocates for police reform, that there are crisis situations where police are not the appropriate intervention, Morénike Giwa-Onaiwu, who serves on the board of ASAN, told Changing America.

“It perplexes me that people have convinced themselves that it’s somehow ‘okay’ to ‘get involved’ by contacting the police in situations where their presence is not only unnecessarily, but potentially harmful,” she said. “And in many cases, on top of calling the police which in and of itself might induce chaos, the caller often exacerbate things further by providing, whether intentionally or unintentionally, limited, possibly inflammatory and/or inaccurate information when doing so.”

“Had Neli been white, I highly doubt that there would have been a 911 call reporting that there was a ‘suspicious person with a gun’ waiting outside the library,” she added.

In the decade since Latson was arrested, she said, “I would like to tell you, and to tell myself, that society has evolved since then, but I cannot do so because it isn’t true. There have been numerous faceless, nameless Neli Latsons every single year since then.”

There have also been several cases that have come to advocates’ attention, she said, including Kayleb Moon-Robinson, a Black, autistic 11-year-old who, in 2014, was also charged with felony assault for struggling while a school resource officer grabbed him, as well as with misdemeanor disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can. The charges were later dropped.

Although various initiatives have been launched to improve police training in handling disabled people, she said, it remains to be seen how effective they are.

“Meanwhile, we are still at risk because of the neurology we were born with and the skin we live in,”Giwa-Onaiwu told Changing America. “Which means neither my 9-year-old Black Autistic son nor his older brothers who have intellectual/developmental disabilities of their own know the simple joy of playing outside...because it’s something that I cannot risk.”

Published on Jul 28, 2020