Ramsey County settles with deaf advocate

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2011 - 11:03 PM

Lawsuit's settlement requires Ramsey jailers to make interpreters available promptly after arrests.

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Douglas Bahl and his wife will receive about $57,500.

Photo: Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

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A legal settlement with a St. Paul activist is forcing Ramsey County to adopt new practices at the Adult Detention Facility to ensure that deaf and hearing-impaired inmates be quickly provided the means to communicate with those inside and outside the jail.

The Ramsey County Board unanimously agreed Tuesday to the settlement, which also requires the county to pay $230,000 to Douglas Bahl, his wife and attorneys. The county does not, however, admit wrongdoing or liability in the 2006 incident that started when Bahl ran a red light and ended with his federal lawsuit claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Bahl, 61, a community leader among the deaf in the Twin Cities, will receive $51,500. His wife and joint plaintiff, Susan Kovacs-Bahl, will receive $6,000. The Minnesota Disability Law Center will get $172,500.

The board considered the settlement in a closed session last week and approved it Tuesday without discussion.

After the vote, board Chairwoman Victoria Reinhardt said the settlement "raises awareness throughout Minnesota and beyond" about the needs of deaf inmates. She noted the sheriff moved quickly to make changes after Bahl's incident and has already adopted many of the requirements stipulated in the settlement.

Bahl was arrested five years ago after he was stopped for running a red light and then scuffled with a police officer.

He claims he told the officer he was deaf and asked to communicate in writing. Instead, he said, he was taken to the jail and for three days was not provided with a sign-language interpreter who could explain the charges and help him communicate. Kovacs-Bahl claimed she was unable to determine Bahl's whereabouts or physical condition during that time.

At a news conference shortly after his arrest, Bahl said that he notified jailers upon being booked that he was deaf and was denied an interpreter or a TTY (teletypewriter) device. He eventually was convicted of a misdemeanor.

The settlement requires the county to provide to all deaf and hearing-impaired inmates a "qualified sign-language interpreter" or other appropriate communication aids within an hour of being taken into custody. The inmates should also have "the same ability to communicate with people outside the jail that other detainees have," according to the agreement.

Interpreters or aids must be provided not just to help on legal issues, but so inmates can communicate regarding medical care, educational or religious programming and other communications that would be "complex or lengthy," according to the deal filed in U.S. District Court.

Reinhardt said the county agreed with the goal and has tried to make it a formal process to "make sure that something like this doesn't happen again."

The county also is required to designate a management-level coordinator who is available at all times and to routinely notify jail administrators when a deaf or hearing-impaired inmate has been booked.

In the St. Paul Police Department, officer Chad Koch already has been successfully pushing for sign-language training for officers.

Bahl's lawyer, Rick Macpherson III, has been touting the significance of the settlement for weeks, but declined to comment on Tuesday. He said Bahl would not be available until Wednesday afternoon.

Sheriff's spokesman Randy Gustafson said the settlement would yield "positive change" and make the stay in the jail for deaf and hearing-impaired inmates "as safe as possible."

The case was originally filed in Ramsey County District Court but moved at the county's request to federal court.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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  • Douglas Bahl sued after he was arrested during a traffic stop and then, he said, jailed without access to an interpreter or a TTY device.

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