On January 15, 2015, a deaf, Ethiopian-born American citizen filed this lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The plaintiff sued the Arlington County Sheriff and Virginia Department of Corrections. The suit was brought under two federal statutes: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The plaintiff, represented by both private counsel and counsel from the National Association of the Deaf, sought compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees.
In the complaint, the plaintiff alleged that he was not provided with American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters during his detention at the Arlington County Detention Facility (Detention Facility) following his arrest at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport for allegedly stealing an iPad. Because the plaintiff is originally from Ethiopia, he struggles to understand, read, and write English. His primary way of communicating is through ASL. When he was arrested, the plaintiff attempted to ask for an ASL interpreter because he did not understand why he was being detained. The officers responded by writing notes to the plaintiff; however, he could not understand what they were writing.
Plaintiff remained at the Detention Center for approximately six weeks. During that time, he did not have access to an interpreter to communicate his dietary and medical needs. He also did not have access to a videophone to speak to his public defender. Throughout his stay at the Detention Center, plaintiff made multiple requests for interpreters and other services to allow him to communicate with the Detention Facility’s staff, but these requests were denied. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property in exchange for a sentence of time served. He later explained that he did not understand why he was arrested until he went to court and that he pleaded guilty only to get out of jail. His alleged victim — another deaf, homeless man who was sleeping at the airport — eventually withdrew the allegation, saying he had made a mistake and that the missing iPad had been found.
The defendants immediately moved to dismiss the claims. On April 28, 2015 Judge James C. Cacheris granted the state-level officials’ motion to dismiss and denied the sheriff’s motion to dismiss. The judge reasoned that the plaintiff’s allegations, if true, showed the sheriff did not do anything to accommodate the plaintiff’s disability under Title II of the ADA.
The plaintiff’s allegations in the complaint compelled the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia to investigate the case. The investigation substantiated the majority of the plaintiff’s allegations and uncovered the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office’s general failure to comply with the ADA. As a result, ACSO entered settlement negotiations with the Department of Justice (represented by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia). On November 16, 2016, the ACSO signed a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice. The agreement stipulated that Arlington County had to pay the plaintiff $250,000. Furthermore, the settlement required that ACSO take steps to better accommodate inmates with disabilities. ACSO agreed to, amongst other things, appoint employees to coordinate ADA compliance, modify policies/procedures to screen prisoners who have disabilities, provide additional auxiliary aids and interpretive services to inmates who are deaf or hearing disabled, and revamp procedures to keep track of services provided to prisoners. It will stay in effect for three years, after which the matter will be closed.
Back in the court case, on December 20, 2016, the court entered a voluntary dismissal. Amelia Huckins - 01/24/2017