The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and the R.I. Disability Law Center today announced the favorable settlement of a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of a profoundly deaf person who was not provided an interpreter to allow him to communicate after he was arrested and detained overnight in jail by Woonsocket police for allegedly making an obscene gesture. The groups expressed hope that the settlement, which addresses important issues regarding municipal agency obligations to accommodate people who are deaf or hard of hearing, will serve as a model for police departments across the state.
The arrest of plaintiff David Alves took place in July 2015, when he and some friends were celebrating a friend’s birthday at the City Side Club in Woonsocket. After a verbal altercation between the bouncer and the group, police were called. On his way out of the bar, Alves gestured toward the bouncer with the American Sign Language sign for “bullshit,” which police at the scene interpreted as giving them the middle finger. Immediately after making the sign, Alves was arrested for violating a city ordinance against “mak[ing] an obscene gesture.”
While being booked and held at the station overnight, Alves’s requests for a sign language interpreter were ignored. When a deaf friend came to the station to check up on him, a police officer handed the friend a note saying that Alves would “be out in the morning no problem . . . he just needs to take it as a learning experience.” In the morning, he was released from custody and issued a summons to appear at court on the ordinance violation. A few months later, a Municipal Court judge dismissed the criminal charge.
The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney V. Edward Formisano and RI Disability Law Center attorney Kate Bowden, argued that city officials violated plaintiff Alves’s “statutory and constitutional rights by unlawfully arresting and detaining him, charging him with violating an unconstitutional City criminal ordinance, subjecting him to discrimination on account of his disability, and failing to accommodate his disability.”
Under the settlement agreement announced today, the City admits no liability but has agreed to the following:
Acknowledgment that it has repealed the “disorderly conduct” provision under which Alves was arrested and which the lawsuit asserted was unconstitutional;
Adoption and implementation of a detailed “Effective Communication Policy” for working with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and making the policy a “material term of the settlement agreement”;
Agreement to provide notice to the public about their rights to auxiliary aids and services and to train staff on working with people who are deaf or hard of hearing; and
An award to Alves of $25,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
Below are quotes from the participants in the lawsuit:
Plaintiff David Alves: “This settlement will help send a very clear message to all law enforcement in the State of Rhode Island that they cannot violate anyone’s civil rights. I hope this settlement will encourage other police departments across the state to also adopt effective communication policies for all who are deaf and hard of hearing. I am personally very glad that my rights have been vindicated and that this settlement will protect other people from having to go through what I endured.”
ACLU of RI attorney V. Edward Formisano: “I am pleased we were able to settle this case and vindicate the important principle that individuals have the power to challenge police practices that undermine basic constitutional rights.”
RIDLC attorney Kate Bowden: “Police departments must be prepared to communicate with all the people they encounter regardless of disability. The Effective Communication Policy crafted by the parties to this law suit will enable the Woonsocket Police Department to better serve people who are deaf and hard of hearing.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown: “This lawsuit alleged that Woonsocket police arrested Mr. Alves under an unconstitutional ordinance, unnecessarily detained him, and failed to provide reasonable accommodations for his disability. This lawsuit favorably addresses all three concerns, and is especially noteworthy in providing a model accommodations policy that we hope other departments in the state will also adopt.”
Brown and Bowden said they plan to make all police departments in the state aware of the settlement and remind them of their obligations under federal and state law to accommodate people with disabilities.