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Minnesota Man Settles Lawsuit for $229,500 and Policy Changes to Assist Deaf Arrestees

A deaf Minnesota man has agreed to accept $229,500 and policy changes to settle a lawsuit that alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act (RA) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) due to the failure of jail officials to provide him with an effective means of communication.

Douglas Duane Bahl, a deaf advocate who teaches American Sign Language (ASL) at the University of Minnesota and St. Paul College, was arrested on November 17, 2006 following a traffic stop. Bahl had run a red light and was pulled over by St. Paul police officer Stephen Bobrowski. When Bobrowski reached the side of the car, Bahl pointed to his ear and said “no.” He then gestured that he wanted to communicate in writing.

Bobrowski, who was not carrying a pen or paper, pointed to his mouth and said “driver’s license,” then made a card shape with his hands. Both parties agreed that Bobrowski pushed Bahl’s shoulder and grabbed his wrist. Bahl pulled away and started to write when Bobrowski sprayed him with “aerosol subject restraint,” and Bahl began flailing his arms.
Bobrowski then removed him from the car, restrained him and placed him under arrest.

Bahl was taken to a hospital for treatment and then booked into the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center (RCADC). He spent three days at the facility but was not provided an ASL interpreter. He eventually filed suit against the City of St. Paul, Ramsey County and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office.

A Minnesota U.S. District Court granted summary judgment to the city. The court found that an arrest is not a “service,” thus the ADA, RA and MHRA had not been violated, and Bahl did not claim excessive force. Further, the district court found no violation in the city’s failure to provide an ASL interpreter during Bahl’s arrest or custodial interrogation, because Bahl could communicate effectively in writing and refused to discuss his arrest without an interpreter.

On July 28, 2011, Bahl and the Ramsey County defendants reached a settlement. Under its terms, Bahl received $51,000, his wife received $6,000 and the Minnesota Disability Law Center received $172,500 in attorney fees and costs. The settlement also specified changes at RCADC to provide effective communication for deaf and hard of hearing prisoners.

Within 30 days of the settlement, RCADC was to have a deaf and hard of hearing coordinator. Officers are to notify RCADC before leaving an arrest site that they are bringing in a deaf or hard of hearing person, and RCADC “will normally provide interpreters within one (1) hour” of taking custody of the arrestee.

In addition to informing an arrestee of the charges against them and services that RCADC provides or offers through the interpreter, the facility will make its prisoner handbook available on video with an ASL interpreter. It will also equip and maintain a videophone, a text-only cell phone, a teletypewriter and a handset amplifier.

“My hope is that other counties here and around the world will look to these changes as an example,” Bahl said. He has filed an appeal with the Eighth Circuit over the grant of summary judgment to the City of St. Paul, which remains pending. Bahl was represented by Roderick J. Macpherson III of the Minnesota Disability Law Center. See: Bahl v. Coun-ty of Ramsey, U.S.D.C. (D. Minn.), Case No. 0:08-cv-05001-DSD-TNL.

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Related legal case

Bahl v. Coun-ty of Ramsey