Lawsuit challenges police treatment of deaf individual

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hands of  a person using American Sign LanguageThe ACLU of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Disability Law Center sued the city of Woonsocket, Rhode Island on April 27 regarding its police department’s treatment of a deaf individual.

“Municipal compliance with federal and state laws prohibiting disability discrimination is mandatory, not optional,” RIDLC attorney Katherine Bowden said in a news release. “People who are deaf and hard of hearing have a right to equal access to city services, including the right to effective communication with the police and other city officials.”

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, David Alves, allegedly was celebrating a friend’s birthday at a club in the town. When the club’s bouncer attempted to remove his friend from the facility, Alves responded in American Sign Language with an obscene gesture.

When the police subsequently arrested Alves, under the state’s disorderly conduct ordinance, Alves requested an interpreter to explain that he had not done anything wrong. Despite repeated requests, he was also not provided an interpreter either during the arrest, when he was booked at the police station, or during the rest of his stay at the city police station, where he was held overnight.

Along with challenging the city ordinance as overly broad and vague under the First Amendment, the disability advocates argue the city’s failure to provide a means for Alves to communicate violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Defendants discriminated against the Plaintiff on the basis of his disability by excluding him from participation in and denying him the benefits of public services, and by subjecting him to discrimination in violation of the ADA,” the lawsuit states. “The Defendants further discriminated against the Plaintiff by failing to ensure effective communication by providing a qualified in-person ASL interpreter or other appropriate auxiliary communication aids and services.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, also argues the seizure was unconstitutional and brings allegations under applicable Rhode Island laws. It also seeks both compensatory and punitive damages.

“I need to fight this case so that other people don’t have to go through the same thing I went through,” Alves said in the news release. “Deaf and hard of hearing people deserve the same dignity anyone else deserves.  If they violate my civil rights, then they might feel they can violate other people’s civil rights.”

The Rhode Island Disability Law Center and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Rhode Island and Washington, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.