Durham County

How a deaf man’s death led to a change in DMV law

Durham firearms examiner Donna Jackson has taught her stepson Adam DeVenny, who is profoundly deaf, what to do if he is stopped by a law enforcement officer. He also has a notice clipped to his sun visor that states he is deaf, and a tablet that allows him to communicate with an officer, Jackson said.

“I’ve explained to Adam numerous times, if you get stopped, do A, B, C and D,” she said. Adam is deaf. But Jackson, who has been in law enforcement for 28 years, said not everyone who is hearing-impaired or deaf has a relative who has been in police work.

Daniel Harris of Charlotte did not.

Harris, 29, who was deaf, was fatally shot by a state trooper after a high-speed chase in August 2016. Jackson set in motion a new law that is intended to prevent another such incident.

Rep. Verla Insko, a Democrat who represents Orange County in the N.C. House, sponsored House Bill 84, which Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law last week. The law allows deaf and hearing-impaired drivers to have a symbol included on their driver’s licenses. That information also will be entered into the electronic database for the cars which deaf or hearing-impaired drivers may own. Hence, a police officer who stops a deaf person’s vehicle will enter their tag number and automatically have that information.

Including the information on a license is voluntary. The law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

North Carolina has about 1.2 million adults 18 and over with hearing loss, and the number is projected to grow 35 percent to about 1.6 million by 2030, according to the N.C. Division of Services for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing.

Jackson’s wife, Linda DeVenny, tried previously to see if she could get a special designation on Adam’s driver’s license. When Linda DeVenny saw the story about Harris, Jackson recalled her saying, “That could have been Adam.” They “started brainstorming about what we could do to keep Adam safe,” Jackson said.

She called Insko’s office and made a proposal that eventually developed into the new law. “Her office picked up on it immediately and said this is wonderful,” Jackson said. Inkso’s office sent Jackson a rough draft, which she shared with Adam, who is now 33. An earlier draft included the option of having a symbol placed on license plates, but Adam felt such information might make him and other hearing-impaired drivers targets.

“I understood [Linda and Adam’s] part, and I understood the law enforcement part, and it worked out to our advantage,” Jackson said. “Because I’ve been in law enforcement for so long, I understand the logistics of how [traffic stops] work.”

The deaf community “was very intensely engaged” in helping to shape the bill, as were representatives of law enforcement agencies, Insko said. “I was surprised there was as much interest as there was,” Insko said. “The process for the bill was very smooth. There were a lot of issues raised” in the committees, she said.

The law also has provisions for training law enforcement officers in dealing with the hearing-impaired and deaf.

About 15 percent of American adults (37.5 million) ages 18 and over report some trouble hearing, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders. Age is the strongest predictor of hearing loss among adults ages 20-69, with the greatest amount of hearing loss in the 60 to 69 age group. Men are almost twice as likely as women to experience hearing loss among adults ages 20-69, the institute states.

Jackson said the new law will help not just with the safety of the hearing-impaired, but also with the safety of officers.

“Everything fell into place,” she said of the legislative process. “It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue, it’s a public safety issue.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1