Fourth Circuit rules against deaf person in police, reasonable accommodation case

In January 2008, a deaf girl called 9-1-1 in Frederick County Maryland to report an alleged domestic violence dispute between her and her father.

She told the police that the entire family was deaf. When the police arrived, they handcuffed the deaf father behind his back, restricting his ability to communicate with the police either through sign language or through written notes.

American Sign Language Alphabet
American Sign Language Alphabet

Knowing that the family was deaf, the police had an interpreter arrive at the scene about 45 minutes later, though the interpreter was unable to successfully communicate with the father.

Though the police determined 30 minutes later that no domestic violence had occurred, the father filed a lawsuit against the police department. He argued that the the incident caused “emotional issues” and that the department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to reasonably accommodate him by refusing to handcuff him in front of his body so he could continue to communicate with the police during their questioning, as well as by failing to use a “qualified sign language interpreter.”

Reaffirming a trial court decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled March 12 that the police were following standard procedures for responding to domestic violence calls and that the department attempted to accomodate him by bringing an interpreter.

“The provision of accommodation (in the ADA) trump legitimate law enforcement needs when responding to an emergency situation,” the court stated.

However, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the trial court’s determination, and previous ambiguity within the circuit, that the ADA does not cover criminal investigations. The 4th Circuit reasoned that the ADA requires police to take steps to require effective communication with people with disabilities during investigations.

“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,” the court stated.

For more analysis of the case read here.