Rhode Island Police Department Settles Lawsuit Concerning Deaf Man

hands making the ASL sign for stop

by Andy Jones
January 30, 2017

The Rhode Island Disability Law Center and the ACLU of Rhode Island announced a settlement January 18 with a Rhode Island police department to reform its practices when interacting with deaf and a hard of hearing individuals.

“Police departments must be prepared to communicate with all the people they encounter regardless of disability,” RIDLC Attorney Kate Bowden said in a news release. “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.”

The lawsuit stems from an encounter with David Alves, a deaf man arrested at a club celebrating a friend’s birthday on July 8, 2015.

After being told to leave the premises by a bouncer, Alves allegedly gestured toward the bouncer with the American Sign Language sign for “bullshit.” City police, interpreting Alves’ sign as giving them the middle finger, arrested him for violating a city ordinance for “making an obscene gesture.”

The Police Department denied Alves’ repeated requests for an ASL interpreter and he was held in custody overnight. Subsequent criminal charges were later dropped.

The advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit on Alves’ behalf [PDF] in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, accusing the Police Department of failing to reasonably accommodate Alves, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as a host of Fourth Amendment, state civil rights and tort violations.

Under the 19-page settlement [PDF], the Police Department must pay $25,000 in damages to Alves and attorney’s fees. Moving forward, it must provide interpreters, auxiliary aids and other services to ensure people who are deaf or hard of hearing can effectively communicate with law enforcement, both prior to and after being detained.

The City also rescinded the city ordinance that Alves was arrested under, which the advocates argued violated the First Amendment.

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