TOPEKA — The belief in John Weber’s heart was expressed Wednesday morning in Topeka.
“If a law like this would have existed prior to Aug. 16, 2016, Joey would likely be alive today,” John Weber, Oakley, told the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday morning.
“Nancy and I would hate to see another family experience the tragedy that we have had to endure.”
Senate Bill 74 — “Joey’s Law” — prompted questions from committee members Wednesday. Committee Chairman Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, scheduled it to be discussed further Friday morning.
Joey Weber, 36, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, lived in Hays and was driving Aug. 16 when an officer with the Hays Police Department signaled him to pull over for a routine traffic stop of an expired license plate. A second officer eventually was called after Weber failed to obey the officer’s orders, and when he showed up, lights flashing, the situation escalated — according to Weber’s family.
“He was just totally terrified by then,” John Weber said.
The incident that began as a traffic stop related to a license tag sticker ended with Weber dying after he was shot at close range after struggling for Sgt. Brandon Hauptman’s gun, according to information released at the time by the Ellis County Attorney’s Office.
“Due to Joey’s autism condition, the noise of the sirens and the trauma of the police car following him cause (sic) him to seek shelter at the place he knew in Hays as New Age Services. He was killed in a physical altercations with a police officer after getting out of his car and trying to reach the safety of New Age Services,” wrote Kenneth Wasserman, Salina, attorney for the estate of Joey Weber.
Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, is the bill’s sponsor, and he wants it amended to add another identification option. The bill gives the options of putting information about needing assistance with cognition on a driver’s license, motor vehicle registration, identification card and on a license plate. Billinger’s extra option would be a transportable placard displayed in the vehicle, such as a handicap placard.
Nancy and John Weber appeared at a prior House committee hearing on a companion bill, House Bill 2016. They do not plan to return to Topeka on Friday as the Senate committee works the bill, but they were encouraged by what they heard in Senate Transportation.
Committee members asked more questions than their counterparts on the House committee, John Weber noted. Also, this Senate Committee heard from Teresa Day, Wichita, and her teenage son, Grant Day, who has autism, the Oakley couple pointed out.
“This story is profoundly depressing, but it could lead to a positive change in the form of Joey’s Law, which would help people with autism in situations involving law enforcement,” Grant Day testified.
Last year, young Day attended prom for the first time, and though he and his family took numerous precautions, he said, they failed to take into account the effect of the loud noise.
“Because of the loud music, I had a complete meltdown,” he said.
“These stressful situations can turn those like me into completely different people.”
Sen. Randall Hardy, R-Salina, focused on how an officer could become aware of an autism decal on the license plate from a distance and before the officer turns on flashing lights.
Hardy said he wanted the officer to have as much information as possible, but even a placard could be hard to see if the vehicle had tinted windows.
Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, noted Joey Weber was driving his father’s vehicle Aug. 16, so special needs would not have appeared on the vehicle’s registration.
The bill’s not perfect, but it is a first step, said Mike Oxford, executive director of Topeka Independent Living Resource center.
Senators also discussed broadening the language to include others who are not autistic but might have a similar reaction under stress.
“Horrific, horrific,” Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said of the Webers’ story, as described by Billinger’s testimony.
Hawk thanked Billinger “for making what I think is a strong case for us to do something.”
No one testified against the bill. Law enforcement associations are neutral on the legislation.