Lawsuit leads to policy changes that accommodate deaf arrestees

By Fred Cohen

Fred Cohen

Douglas Bahl, an advocate for the deaf, teaches American Sign Language (ASL) at the University of Minnesota. He reads English at a sixth-grade level, and usually communicates in ASL, though he uses a Blackberry handheld device to communicate by text and email. When Bahl communicates with non-ASL speakers in person, he typically uses an interpreter or alternatively communicates by writing.

Bahl’s troubles began when he ran a red light and was observed by an officer who pursued Bahl and had him come to a stop. One can almost anticipate the communication issues inherent in this scenario. Bahl indicated (by pointing) that he could not hear and that he wanted to communicate by writing. The officer did not have a pen and paper on his person, and apparently when Bahl reached to get his license the officer grabbed Bahl’s wrist causing injury. Thereafter the officer sprayed Bahl with an aerosol to restrain him

The officer either feared Bahl, acted out of ignorance, or both. What is clear is that a routine traffic stop quickly degenerated into a physical encounter, injury, and then a custodial arrest.

There is a great deal of detail in this case regarding Bahl’s three days in jail, and issues such as access to a TTY (a device allowing typing over a telephone line), the availability of an interpreter, rights during interrogation, and email. I will compress the facts and summarize the main points.

In Bahl v. County of Ramsey (Minn.), 2010 WL 5463750 (D. Minn.) we learn:

  1. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is in play with Bahl’s lawsuit in federal court for damages;
  2. Bahl is a qualified individual with a disability (deafness) who could not be excluded from the benefits of a service, program, or activity because of his disability; and
  3. Communication disabilities may prevent meaningful access and access may require auxiliary aids.  



During the traffic stop, the court found, Bahl was not denied a service by the officer. The stop was reasonable and the officer did try to accommodate Bahl by making gestures and eventually getting pen and paper.

Bahl’s interrogation was proper because he did receive Miranda anything-you-say warnings and, as was his right, refused to answer without an interpreter, which was not provided. His right to silence was protected and he suffered no harm. Thus, not having the interpreter caused no legally relevant harm.

As for access to the TTY, there is an authentic (i.e., jury) issue as to the delay (3 days) in actually providing the TTY. This ruling simply means Bahl can obtain a jury trial on point.



After the court’s decision, the parties reached a settlement. Bahl received $229,500 ($172,500 in attorney fees for the Minnesota Disability Law Center) and achieved the following policy changes:

Within 30 days of the settlement, the County Detention Center was to have a deaf and hard-of-hearing coordinator.

Officers are to notify the Center before leaving an arrest site that they are bringing in a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, and “normally provide interpreters within one (1) hour” of taking custody of the arrestee.

In addition to informing an arrestee of the charges against him or her and of services that the Center 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.

Mr. Bahl clearly was less interested in litigating for money damages than achieving desirable policy change through individual litigation. This case is an excellent example of an individual lawsuit for damages serving as a vehicle for significant, albeit local, social change.

And, no, this is not likely to serve as an invitation to deaf drivers in St. Paul to run red lights and access the improved accommodation.


Fred Cohen, LLB, LLM, Yale Law School, who formerly edited the Hearing and Law blog at Hearing Health Matters, has taught at a number of leading law schools. He was a founder of the Graduate School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany. He now serves as the federal court-appointed Monitor in Fussell v. Wilkinson, which encompasses medical and dental care in Ohio’s prisons. He is author of The Mentally Disordered Inmate and the Law and is the editor of Correctional Mental Health Report and Correctional Law Reporter. He is a frequent contributor to Hearing Views.

1 Comment

  1. Without question, it is important to provide effective communication access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, this article makes it sound like oral hard of hearing people will be required to be treated as if they express themselves only in sign language, whereas the majority of people with hearing loss do not know any sign language at all. How will people with severe hearing loss who continue to use their voices be treated? There seems to be no requirement for them to be provided phones that allow them to use their voices while still providing simultaneous text and audio (like several CapTel or CaptionCall phones do). It’s important to be quite analytical in determining how best to provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

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