DUBLIN, OH (WCMH) –At 29 years old, Richard Mazur is a world-ranked Paralympic swimmer who is involved in the community. He’s autistic, but he’s been driving a car for the last seven years after extensive training behind the wheel.
But on October 19, 2015, Richard’s life changed. He was stopped by Dublin police just around the corner from his family’s house on his way home from swim team practice.
His parents, Lauren and Lech Mazur, said their other son ran into the house and told them to come outside.
“I thought the worst,” Lauren Mazur said. “So when I ran down the driveway and saw the blue lights, I freaked out. He was already arrested, handcuffed and sitting in the back of the police van—your worst nightmare.”
According to the arrest report from Richard’s traffic stop, an off-duty Columbus police officer had followed him after observing him “swerving erratically.” Dublin police pulled Richard over for failing to use a turn signal.
Dashcam video obtained by NBC4 shows Richard getting out of the car. Officers then administer several field sobriety tests, including horizontal gaze nystagmus (which tests involuntary movement of the eyes), walking with one foot in front of the other in a straight line and standing on one foot. Richard is eventually handcuffed and taken into the police cruiser.
After failing the tests, Richard was arrested for operating a vehicle under the influence.
His mother, Lauren, said she explained to police that Richard cannot complete those tasks because he’s autistic.
“It doesn’t matter if you can’t hop on one foot,” Lauren Mazur said. “You don’t practice hopping on one foot, you don’t practice walking a straight line. You do practice driving a car, and you practice for a very long time and then you have to pass a test.”
Richard was given a breathalyzer test back at the police station, which showed no alcohol in his system. He also had to give a urine sample. The charges against Richard were eventually dismissed after a urine specimen came back negative. But the Mazurs said the experience has been devastating.
“He wouldn’t drive at night, he wouldn’t go to swim team,” Lauren Mazur said. “We severely cut back his hours from swimming because the mistake he made that night was he was tired and forgot to use his turn signal.”
NBC4 went to the Dublin Police Department to ask about Richard’s traffic stop, as well as one five months later, involving another autistic man.
Chief Heinz von Eckartsberg said officers’ training is standard and that field sobriety tests are designed to apply to anyone who can safely drive.
“Intellectual disabilities don’t really play a part in what we’re looking for,” von Eckartsberg said. “We’re looking for a person’s ability to drive safely. Anyone, regardless of what their disability is, has to be able to drive safely, and the officer’s job is to determine whether or not that person can operate a motor vehicle safely on the highway.”
He described the training officers go through to identify impaired drivers, including signs such as weaving, not signaling, pulling out into an intersection on a red light and speeding.
“They’re looking at the totality of the circumstances,” von Eckartsberg said. “Not only the person’s driving behavior, but also their behavior when they speak to them on the traffic stop, their behavior when they get out of the car and their performance on field sobriety tests.”
Dublin police attend the Columbus Police Academy and then go through field training. Von Eckartsberg said the department has been “pretty consistently satisfied” that someone who can drive should also be able to perform standardized field sobriety tests.
The Mazurs said Richard had been pulled over for minor traffic incidents twice by the Ohio State Highway Patrol and said that experience was much different.
Ron Raines, a staff lieutenant for OSHP, said troopers go through training that includes de-escalation, police-community relations and human diversity training.
“Understanding who we are, our implicit and explicit biases,” Lt. Raines said. “If you’re aware of your biases, you can avoid treating them in a way that would express your biases.”
He noted that the curriculum also includes two hours of special needs population training.
“Whether it’s autism or somebody with a developmental disability or some other type of special need, we interact with those people based upon the special need,” Raines said. “Understanding the behaviors of the different special needs population and that they would exhibit on a traffic stop is key to understanding the difference between someone who’s impaired and someone who has a special need.”
The Mazurs believe Richard was wrongfully arrested. They believe police officers need more training and education to prevent this type of incident from happening to other people.
“They have to think beyond a handicapped plate or placard hanging from the mirror that identifies somebody as having a disability,” Lech Mazur, Richard’s father, said.
Charges have been dismissed for Richard, as well as for the other family who went through a similar situation in the spring of 2016.
Both families told NBC4 they think Ohio should implement a legal document or driver’s license endorsement to indicate when drivers are on the autism spectrum.