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Minnesota City Settles After Cop Uses Mace On Deaf Motorist
St. Paul, Minnesota pays $93,450 settlement with deaf motorist who was Maced during a traffic stop and jailed for four days.

Doug Bahl
A police officer who lashed out at a deaf driver with whom he had difficulty communicating cost St. Paul, Minnesota $93,450 on Wednesday. The city council approved a settlement with Douglas D. Bahl, who had sued over a traffic stop that took place on Friday, November 17, 2006. Bahl is a high school teacher, but he can only express his thoughts fully in American Sign Language.

St. Paul Police Officer Stephen Bobrowski pulled Bahl over at around 5pm for allegedly running a red light. When the officer came to the driver's side window and began speaking, Bahl shook his head, pointed at his ear and said, "no" while indicating he wanted to use a pad of paper and pen to communicate. Instead, Officer Bobrowski began speaking louder, saying "driver's license" and making the shape of a card with his hands.

When Bahl failed to produce the license, Officer Bobrowski shoved him. Bahl leaned away, and the officer grabbed him by the wrist. Bahl took a pad of paper from the passenger's seat and wrote "joint" to signify his wrist joint was in pain. Bobrowski blasted Bahl with Mace and yanked the man out of the car to be placed under arrest. Bahl was taken to Regions Hospital for treatment of his left eye which showed significant swelling from the attack. A sign language interpreter was available, but she would only translate for hospital business, saying the police could get their own interpreter.

Bahl was taken to jail and booked for "obstructing with force." Since the man could not make a phone call, he asked to be able to email his girlfriend (now his wife) for help. The officers refused, saying he could use a TTY machine, something that would not work to reach his girlfriend. Later, when Bahl thought of someone he could contact with a TTY, the jail staff denied the request, saying he would have to wait until the next morning.

The next day, Saturday, St. Paul Police Sergeant Bryant Gaden came to the jail to interview Bahl in writing. Bahl asked for an interpreter and signed a form that spelled out his Miranda rights. After doing so, Sergeant Gaden said the city's case did not justify hiring an interpreter.

When Sunday arrived, Bahl asked for a TTY. He was told, "After noon. See what we can do." Bahl finally used another inmate to make a call that got word to his family that he was incarcerated (something not allowed by the jail's rules). By Monday, was charged with bail set at $6000 and released.

Bahl filed suit against the city and county under the Americans with Disability Act claiming he was excluded from the benefit of public services because he was deaf. A district court judge threw out these claims.

"Bobrowski's decision initially to try to communicate with Bahl using gestures and lip reading before leaving Bahl alone to retrieve a pen and paper were objectively reasonable and lawful," US District Judge David S. Doty ruled in December 2010.

The court also found no problem with the jail's denying the use of email or a TTY machine.

"As an initial matter, email is not a modification of a telephone call; it is an entirely different service," Judge Doty wrote. "Even if it were a modification, Bahl offers no evidence that email or Internet access were available on a computer in booking or the officer's desk in the cell area, or that Ramsey County could, over the weekend, make that service available."

The US Court of Appeal for the Eighth Circuit agreed, saying it would not second guess Officer Bobrowski's actions, particularly because Bahl should have known he was to produce his license when pulled over. The appellate panel, however, found that an interpreter should have been provided when the Miranda warning was provided.

"Unlike an arrest or a speeding ticket, a custodial interrogation with an interpreter would have afforded Bahl certain benefits, including the right to ask questions and tell his side of the story, which arguably could have affected the charging decision," the three-judge panel ruled in March 2012. "Under these circumstances, we find the post-arrest interview to be a covered 'service' or 'activity.'"

Because it lost on that point, the city was persuaded to settle by agreeing to extensive policy and training changes to ensure a greater availability of services for the deaf. Bahl will receive $20,000 and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid will receive $73,450 in attorney's fees.

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