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Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits any public entity from discriminating against “qualified” individuals with disabilities in the provision or operation of public services, programs, or activities. (See Williams v. City of New York, 121 F. Supp.3d 354(S.D. N.Y.) and Lewis v. Truitt, 960 F. Supp. 175 (1997).)
Question: Do ADA obligations to accommodate a person with a disability apply to a police officer when making an arrest?
Quick Answer: The answer is yes, if doing so could easily be accomplished without endangering the officers or the public safety and without interfering in the lawful execution of the officers’ duties.
In the case of Williams v. The City of New York, the plaintiff is deaf, as is her husband, and they primarily rely on American Sign Language (ASL). They are landlords and called for police assistance when their tenants were vacating the premises. They anticipated trouble because of a history of hard feelings. When the officers arrived, they concluded there were “arrestable offenses” and took both a tenant and Williams into custody. In Williams’ case, they did so without making any effort to communicate with her. The court noted that “[a]t no time from the police officers’ initial on-the-street interaction with Plaintiff, when they concluded that probable cause existed for her arrest, until her release from NYPD custody almost 24 hours later, did the NYPD provide Plaintiff with an ASL interpreter or any auxiliary communication aid.” For this reason the city’s motion for summary judgment was denied, with the court noting the city may be found liable for discrimination on the basis of disability at the scene of an arrest.
In the case of Lewis v. Truitt, police officers, without a warrant, attempted to remove a 9-month-old child from the home of the child’s grandfather at the request of child protective services because the child’s mother had committed suicide, and there was a dispute regarding who would be granted custody. The grandfather questioned the police’s authority to remove the child and, because he was deaf, asked that the officers communicate with him in writing. In spite of assurances by other members of the household about his deafness, the officers believed he was lying and pulled him to the floor by his hair, handcuffed him, placed him under arrest, and proceeded to kick and hit him. The city’s motion for summary judgment was denied, and the issue of an ADA violation proceeded to trial. The Lewis court relied on a statement from the House Judiciary Committee stating: “In order to comply with the non-discrimination mandate, it is often necessary to provide training to public employees about disability. For example, persons who have epilepsy, and a variety of other disabilities, are frequently inappropriately arrested and jailed because police officers have not received proper training in the recognition of and aid of seizures. Such discriminatory treatment based on disability can be avoided by proper training.”
The preceding cases are easily distinguished from those where courts have held that Title II contains an “exigent circumstances” exception that absolves public entities of their duty to provide any reasonable accommodation. In Waller ex rel. Estate of Hunt v. Danville, 556 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2009), officers were absolved of any duty to reasonably accommodate Hunt’s mental illness when confronted with a hostage situation where the hostage had been missing for days. Hunt used threatening language toward the officers who were attempting to negotiate the release of the hostage, and when the officers forced their way in, Hunt came toward them brandishing what looked like a knife. In Gohier v. Enright, 186 F.3d 1216 (10th Cir. 1999), an officer observed a man walking down the middle of the street after midnight. The officer got out of his car and identified himself saying, “Police, stop!” The man, a paranoid schizophrenic, advanced on the officer while holding a slender object the officer thought was a knife. As the officer retreated toward his car, the man stopped and said, “Do you like your car? It’s gone,” and opened the car door. The officer moved forward to stop him, but the man lunged toward the officer, making a stabbing motion with the object, and the officer shot him.