Court revives ADA suit on question of accommodations in post-arrest interviews

In providing some push-back against the judicial system’s general reluctance to second-guess law enforcement interactions with people with disabilities, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled October 9 that the city of St. Paul, Minn. may have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide an interpreter in a post-arrest interview.

Hands engaged in sign language
Sign Language Denied

The plaintiff in the case, Douglas Bahl, is deaf and communicates predominantly through American Sign Language, though he occasionally communicates through writing.

After being pulled over for running a red light on November 17, 2006, a police officer declined Bahl’s request to respond to questioning with a writing pad, relying instead on simple gestures as a means of communication. Though the facts are in dispute, Bahl, who did not have his driver’s license on him, allegedly resisted arrest and was charged with the gross misdemeanor of obstructing with force.

When the police later provided Bahl a statement of his charges, Bahl alleged that he was discriminated against since the city failed to provide an interpreter. The city alleges that Bahl demonstrated that he clearly understood his charges, despite Bahl’s confusion in regard to some of the legal terms.

The police department then specifically told Bahl he would be provided a sign language interpreter at a post-arrest interview. The city allegedly changed its mind, with one officer  stating that the financial costs of providing an interpreter outweighed the need to ensure Bahl received his requested accommodation.

Bahl proceeded to sue the city, alleging that it violated the ADA by failing to provide “meaningful access to the public entity’s services,” in the first encounter with the police at the traffic stop, when the department provided its statement of charges and with the post-arrest interview. In 2010, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota dismissed all the charges.

The 8th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision regarding the traffic stop, stating that due the “exigent circumstances” present in traffic stops and the state’s interest in protecting the officer’s safety, it would be unreasonable to require the police officer to have gone back to his police car to provide material for Bahl’s to communicate through writing.

Similarly, the 8th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision regarding the statement of charges, stating that no reasonable jury would have concluded that the city failed to properly notify Bahl of the charges against him.

However, the 8th Circuit ruled that a reasonable jury may have determined that Bahl was discriminated against solely on the basis of his disability when the city failed to provide him an interpreter. Though Bahl did not have a constitutionally protected right to a post-arrest interview, the city’s decision to reverse its promise to provide an interpreter provides grounds for anti-discrimination protection.

“If the City terminated the interview because it did not want to provide Bahl with an ASL interpreter, the City bears the burden of showing that providing an interpreter would have resulted in “undue financial and administrative burdens,” the court stated. “The fact that an ASL interpreter would ‘cost the government . . . perhaps more than the benefit received by [Bahl] is not a sufficient reason to reject the provision of aid.'”

The case will now be remanded to the district court for further hearings on the post-interview claim.