Deaf activist Douglas Bahl was held in jail for three days without any means to communicate with family members or to seek legal advice after he scuffled with police during a routine traffic stop, according to a lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court.
Bahl, 57, ultimately was convicted of a misdemeanor crime in connection with the 2006 incident in St. Paul, but he and his wife now are suing the city, county and the Sheriff's Office to ensure that deaf and hearing-impaired people have the same access to communication as a hearing person, their attorney said Friday.
They also are seeking damages "in excess of $50,000" from the Police Department and the Sheriff's Office, the lawsuit said.
Sheriff Bob Fletcher said that they have worked with Bahl to improve their procedures since the incident and that he thought they had met his concerns.
City Attorney John Choi said that from the city's vantage point, it was Bahl, not the police, who acted inappropriately.
But Rick Macpherson, Bahl's attorney, said this is not an isolated incident. "There are a number of cases around the country where deaf people are held in jail and not provided with any means to communicate with people on the outside. They're lost; they get lost."
"It's something that's well known in the deaf community, something people are afraid of happening to them."
Bahl's arrest in November 2006 raised an Internet outcry. He was pulled over Nov. 17 while on his way to visit his girlfriend -- now his wife, Susan Kovacs-Bahl -- at a Minneapolis hospital.
Macpherson said Bahl tried to communicate in writing but the officer refused. There was a scuffle, and Bahl was sprayed with a chemical irritant and pulled from his vehicle. After being treated for his injuries at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, he was booked into the county jail.
Neither police nor jail personnel provided Bahl with a sign-language interpreter or any other communication device that would have him to communicate with Kovacs-Bahl or other family members, who grew increasing worried about him, Macpherson said.
Fletcher said Friday that the incident was investigated thoroughly but there were no sustained complaints because there were conflicting versions of what happened. Some said Bahl had declined to use a TTY device, the sheriff said.
Macpherson disputes that and said it wasn't until Monday that the device was offered. Bahl was arrested on the previous Friday evening.
Required by law
State law, as well as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, requires that law enforcement officials provide whatever means necessary for effective communication, Macpherson said.
"The law doesn't require and Mr. Bahl isn't requesting an interpreter at his side 24 hours a day," Macpherson said. "He didn't ask for an interpreter when police approached the car. He just asked to write."
Macpherson said the police and sheriff's office are "kind of pointing fingers at each other" about who's supposed to provide an interpreter and "as a result, nobody is doing it."
The lawsuit asks that the city and county change their policies and practices. It asks that the deaf "have the same kind of access to communication that hearing inmates have," Macpherson said.
Fletcher said the Sheriff's Office made "numerous modifications to our procedures at Mr. Bahl's urgings," following the incident. They include updated technology such as text messaging and video. An expedited process now makes sign language interpreters available at the jail within four hours of a request, the sheriff said.
"Frankly we thought we had accommodated all of his concerns. But when all is said and done, which included an extensive mediation, Mr. Bahl wanted money," Fletcher said.
"It wasn't as if the county wasn't willing to make some sort of small financial offering, but his request was very significant, and it wasn't in the best interest of what the citizens would expect from us," Fletcher said.
Bahl and his wife are seeking damages for the "emotional harm" they experienced, Macpherson said.
Kovacs-Bahl, who is also deaf, was expecting Bahl at the hospital that Friday night. When he didn't show up, she tried to file a missing person report and was told to call back. She had no idea where he was or what had happened to him until another jail inmate helped get in touch with her.
City Attorney John Choi responded to the lawsuit Friday, saying: "Most of the plaintiff's allegations involve what happened at the jail. On the part involving the St. Paul Police Department, the most important fact is that the jury in the criminal case convicted the plaintiff of obstructing the legal process based upon testimony of independent witnesses. It's the plaintiff who acted inappropriately, not the St. Paul Police Department."
But Macpherson said police were at the root of the incident.
"The bottom line was, if the officer had communicated with Mr. Bahl in writing so they could have understood each other, he would have given Mr. Bahl a ticket for the red light violation and they would have gone on their way," the attorney said.
"This didn't have to happen. It's all because Mr. Bahl wanted to communicate in writing and the officer refused."
Staff writer Chris Havens contributed to this report. Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551