Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fourth Circuit Holds ADA Applies to Police Interrogation During Arrest, But Law-Enforcement Exigencies Guide Interpretation of Statute's Requirements

On Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued an opinion in a case entitled Seremeth v. Board of County Commissioners.  Seremeth is deaf.  Sheriff's deputies responded to a report of domestic violence at his house one night.  Although they knew Seremeth was deaf, the deputies followed their normal protocol for domestic violence calls and cuffed his hands behind his back, thus preventing him from communicating by signing or passing notes.  About 45 minutes into the encounter, a local police officer who was studying American Sign Language arrived, but she was not sufficiently fluent to communicate with Seremeth.  A while later, about an hour into the encounter, with the interpretive help of Seremeth's father, the deputies determined that no abuse had occurred, uncuffed Seremeth, and left.  Seremeth sued under Title II of the ADA, contending that the deputies did not provide effective means of communicating with him during his handcuffing and questioning.

Affirming the district court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants, the court of appeals first held that the ADA's requirements apply to on-scene police questioning. In so holding, the court rejected broad dicta in its 1997 decision in Rosen v. Montgomery County. There, the court had described it as difficult to "fit[] an arrest into the ADA at all." And the court had said that "[i]f we assume, however, that the police were required to provide auxiliary aids at some point in the process, that point certainly cannot be placed before the arrival at the stationhouse."  Many had read these statements as saying that arrests and on-scene questioning were exempt from the ADA, but the Seremeth court concluded that they were dicta and that, in light of the Supreme Court's "expansive interpretation" of the ADA in the Yeskey case, "the ADA applied once the deputies attempted to question and obtain information from Seremeth." But the court of appeals nonetheless held that the defendants were entitled to judgment. The court concluded that "due to the exigencies inherent in responding to a domestic violence situation, no further accommodations were required than the ones made by the deputies."

Notwithstanding the bottom-line ruling for the defendants in this case, the Seremeth opinion is likely to serve ADA plaintiffs well in future cases.  The Rosen dicta really was inconsistent with Yeskey's broad understanding of the ADA's coverage, and it is nice to have the Fourth Circuit disavowing it.

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