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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > May 2012 > Seremeth v. Board of County Commissioners — Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (Maryland, North Carolin

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Seremeth v. Board of County Commissioners — Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia), March 12, 2012

Question: Does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to criminal investigations?
Quick answer: Yes. If you don’t provide the suspect with reasonable accommodations for his disability, you may be civilly liable.
Facts: Sheriff’s deputies received a dispatch call about domestic abuse at plaintiff Robert Seremeth’s home. The deputies had been to Seremeth’s house three or four times before, all in response to alleged domestic disputes, but no arrests had been made. The deputies also knew that the entire Seremeth family was deaf, so the dispatcher had a third deputy respond to the call because she was learning American Sign Language at the time. The sheriff’s office had emergency interpreting services available through a government contractor, but those interpreters were given one hour to arrive at the scene.
When the first two deputies arrived at the home, Seremeth answered the door. The deputies drew their weapons and cuffed Seremeth’s hands behind his back, placing him outside to kneel along the sidewalk. He was unable to communicate with his hands or write notes to the officers. When he tried to speak to them, they put a finger up to their mouths, indicating that Seremeth should not talk. An officer wrote a note that they were waiting on an interpreter to arrive but never explained why they were there. Seremeth was kept outside for 30 to 45 minutes before officers woke Seremeth’s children and parents to help interpret. The third deputy then arrived but also was unsuccessful in interpreting for Seremeth. Over an hour later, the sheriff’s deputies determined that no domestic abuse had occurred, so they released Seremeth and left. He later sued the sheriff’s office and the county commissioners for violating the ADA by prohibiting him from communicating with his hands and not providing a sign-language interpreter.
Why the case is important: The court held that the ADA’s “reasonable accommodations” requirement applies to interrogations, but that the officers reasonably accommodated Seremeth under the circumstances. The deputies were responding to a domestic abuse call, which presents some of the most dangerous situations for law enforcement. Responding to violent crimes creates an exigency that should be considered when deciding if law enforcement’s accommodations for a suspect are reasonable.
Here, the officers handcuffed Seremeth behind his back and removed him from the home as the standard procedure for responding to and securing any domestic disturbance scene. And even though emergency interpreters were available through a government contractor, it was reasonable under the circumstances for the deputies to attempt communication through Seremeth’s family and another deputy. Law enforcement officers must make snap judgments in their line of work, especially during domestic disputes.
Keep in mind: Make sure you know your department’s protocol in dealing with suspects, victims, or witnesses with disabilities. If the department has a contract with qualified interpreters, as in this case, make sure you know what the procedure is for requesting their assistance during both routine and emergency calls. Otherwise, always attempt to make reasonable accommodations when communicating with individuals with disabilities during a criminal investigation so you can avoid civil liability.
Click here to read the entire opinion.