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HB 1286 would further define the term "disabled individual" within Chapter 22, Penal Code labeled “Assaultive Offenses”. The current statute used to define a “disabled individual” is vague and open to interpretation. It simply describes a disabled individual as someone whom is unable to protect themselves from harm or to provide food, shelter, or medical care for themselves. This bill would add some specificity by including in the definition any individual with autism, developmental disability, intellectual disability, severe emotional disturbance, or traumatic brain injury. This new language would be in addition to, rather than in lieu of, the existing definition which is left intact with some minor modifications.
HB 1286 is intended to be merely an administrative bill that further defines the term "disabled individual" for the purpose of charging with a Class A misdemeanor rather than a Class C misdemeanor a defendant accused of assault. However, further clarifying disability can also be seen as warranted to help the courts to provide more equitable justice.
The law regarding assault is structured with a bias in favor of protecting the vulnerable who by definition have less ability to defend themselves and are often easier targets for potential assailants. Currently, a prosecutor is able to increase the charge from a Class C to a Class A misdemeanor for a defendant alleged to have assaulted a person with a disability which is currently defined in statute as a person older than 14 years of age who is unable to “provide food, shelter, or medical care.” This definition is problematic in that it is quite vague and open to interpretation. Any time there is the potential for an elevated charge based on the status of the victim there should be great clarity in statute as to what would or could trigger the elevated charge.
The update to add specific definition to the legal term "disabled" for the purpose of prosecuting assault is is clearly an important step in the right direction. Presumably people covered under the expanded definition could already be included under the current definition but this new language makes that a certainty.
However, the 84th Legislature may be missing an opportunity to fully clarify the statute by leaving intact vague language, the removal or amendment of which could help provide more equitable justice and have a more uniform standard for prosecution. We support HB 1286 on the basis that it would support the liberty of victims and move to add specificity to statute, but recommend that the legislature review and update the language in Section 1 (3)(B) of this legislation.