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When Must Cops Provide Interpreters for Deaf Arrestees?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Douglas Duane Bahl sued the City of St. Paul under the anti-discrimination provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, §504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act, after a traffic stop turned into a scuffle that turned into a hospital visit and an arrest.

Bahl, who is deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) as his primary language, claimed that the entire unpleasant ordeal should have been avoided because St. Paul cops were required to communicate with him in writing or through an interpreter. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals mostly disagreed.

St. Paul Police Officer Stephen Bobrowski stopped Bahl for ignoring a red light. When Bobrowski approached the car, Bahl shook his head, gestured to his ear and said "no." Bahl next gestured that he wanted to communicate in writing. Bobrowski was not carrying a pen or paper, and he pointed to his mouth and said "drivers license" and then made a card shape with his hands.

The aforementioned scuffle ensued, (though we're not quite sure how it started), and Bahl reached for paper and a pen. Bobrowski then sprayed Bahl with an aerosol subject restraint, and Bahl started flailing his arms. Bobrowski pulled Bahl from his car and restrained him. An ambulance then transported Bahl to a hospital for treatment.

Bahl was provided with a typewritten statement at the hospital stating, "You have been arrested for GROSS MISDEMEANOR OBSTRUCTING WITH FORCE MN State Statute 609.50. We will not be asking you any questions at this time. When an investigator interviews you a sign language interpreter can be provided if you wish."

Bahl asked for a police interpreter on at least two different occasions while interacting with the police after his arrest; he was never provided one because the cops decided that interviewing Bahl after his arrest wasn't necessary to the city's case and didn't justify the cost of an interpreter.

In his suit, Bahl identifies three discrete events during which he asserts the City denied him meaningful access to services: the traffic stop, the statement of the charges, and a post-arrest interview that ended after a Miranda waiver because the cops didn't want to pay for an interpreter.

The Eighth Circuit construes Title II of the ADA as requiring that qualified persons with disabilities receive effective communication that results in "meaningful access" to a public entity's services, including the use of interpreters for the hearing impaired.

Here, the Eighth Circuit found that, due to the exigencies of the traffic stop, Bobrowski was not required to honor Bahl's request to communicate by writing. The court also ruled that no reasonable jury could conclude that the written charge statement did not provide Bahl with meaningful access to the service of being notified of the reason for his arrest.

The court, however, held that a reasonable jury could conclude that the post-arrest interview had been initiated and was stopped due to Bahl's disability, so it reinstated the Title II claim with regard to the interview.

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