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Civil Rights – ADA – Domestic Violence Call – Handcuffed Deaf Suspect

Civil Rights – ADA – Domestic Violence Call – Handcuffed Deaf Suspect

Seremeth v. Board of County Commissioners Frederick County, Md. (Lawyers Weekly No. 12-01-0308, 14 pp.) (Gregory, J.) No. 10-1711, March 12, 2012; USDC at Baltimore, Md. (Legg, J.) 4th Cir. Full-text opinion.

Holding: Police responded reasonably to a domestic call involving a family whose members were deaf by handcuffing the father behind his back, which impeded his ability to write notes or sign, and by calling in an American Sign Language trainee, and the county is entitled to summary judgment on the father’s claim that police violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While it is undisputed that plaintiff has a disability and is a “qualified individual,” the question remains whether the county’s criminal investigation is covered by the ADA. We hold that while police investigations are subject to the ADA’s framework, the exigent circumstances involved in a suspected domestic violence situation render the accommodations provided reasonable under the ADA.

Plaintiff has established an injury cognizable under the ADA. The communication between plaintiff and the deputies was deficient even though plaintiff wasn’t arrested. The injury is the failure to make communication as effective as it would have been among deputies and persons without disabilities. Unlike in Rosen v. Montgomery County, 121 F.3d 154 (4th Cir. 1997), this plaintiff’s injuries are greater than those experienced by almost every person interrogated by the government, because his injuries stemmed from the very failure to communicate – an injury that would not have been inflicted on a person with full hearing capabilities.

Courts across the country have called Rosen’s holding into question in light of the Supreme Court decision in Penn. Dep’t of Corrections v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206 (1998), which interpreted the ADA to cover disabled state inmates who have been discriminated against in correctional programming. We conclude the ADA applies to the investigation of criminal conduct, and next consider the reasonableness of the deputies’ conduct under the circumstances.

Plaintiff argues that because the deputies did not alter their protocol to allow plaintiff to be handcuffed in front of his body so he could write notes to the deputies and thereby communicate effectively, he was denied reasonable accommodation. Plaintiff also claims that because the deputies did not provide a qualified interpreter, they did not reasonably accommodate him. We reject these contentions.

What constitutes reasonable accommodations during a police investigation for a domestic disturbance is a question of fact and will vary according to the circumstances.

Here, the deputies were responding to a domestic dispute. They were obligated to assure themselves that no threat existed against them, plaintiff’s children or anyone else. The deputies could not rely on a phone call claiming there were no weapons in the house – to do so would be a failure in their duty and training. The exigency justified keeping plaintiff handcuffed behind his back, as is standard procedure in dangerous situations.

The entire encounter took an hour and 15 minutes before deputies concluded there was not probable cause to arrest plaintiff or remove him from the home to protect his children. It could have taken up to an hour to provide an interpreter. The deputies were not required to wait until an interpreter arrived in order to perform their duty and attempt to question plaintiff.

Under the circumstances, it was reasonable for the deputies to attempt to accommodate plaintiff’s disability by calling an ASL trainee to assist in communication, and by attempting to use plaintiff’s father as an interpreter.

Summary judgment for the county is affirmed.


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