Prison Terms for Not Installing ADA Ramps?

Originally published at Cato Institute by Walter Olson | February 9, 2012

We’ve often deplored the continued push of criminal prosecution into matters that were once considered more suitable for regulation or for the operation of civil law. A little‐​noted report a few weeks back in the Los Angeles Times may indicate the next milestone in overcriminalization:

The U.S. attorney has launched a fraud investigation to determine whether Los Angeles city officials ignored federal laws designed to protect the disabled when building or fixing up housing. …

The investigation spans January 2001 to the present, the letters said. If violations are uncovered, city agencies that used federal housing funds could face financial penalties, lose out on future grants or possibly become the subject of a criminal investigation, said [city official] Bill Carter…

Disabled activists sought an investigation because, to quote the LAT again,

In testimony and in person, activists alleged that doors were sometimes too heavy for wheelchair users to open, elevators were not working in at least one city‐​funded building, and managers either refused to rent to wheelchair users or did not have apartments available for them, [advocate Becky] Dennison said.

The activists also felt ignored because various management recommendations they made to local officials had been ignored. They already have a right to file civil suits over their grievances: indeed, shortly after the U.S. Attorney’s investigation came to light three advocacy groups did file a civil suit against the city.

There are very real problems of fraud — plain old graft and money‐​raking — on the L.A. public housing scene. But the idea of redefining fraud to include ADA noncompliance is a different matter. If taken seriously, it would mean exposing ordinary as well as dishonest local officials across the country to the specter of criminal liability. It’s notoriously hard to assure that either new or renovated buildings are 100% compliant with ambitious interpretations of the law; a design fix that satisfies three ADA consultants may displease a fourth. Criminal liability should arise from very clear, preannounced standards of conduct. That’s not the ADA.

Maybe the U.S. Attorney’s office is just raising the criminal issue as a bit of bravado to please its friends in the advocacy world and strong‐​arm the city into settling. But as playwrights know, if a shotgun is shown above the fireplace in Act I, by the middle of Act III a shot will ring out. This misguided extension of federal fraud law is worth challenging now.