Minnesota Policeman Uses Mace On Deaf Driver, City Settles Case For $93,450

May 10, 2013

On November 17, 2006, Douglas D. Bahl was pulled over in St. Paul for allegedly running a red light. Ordinarily, a driver in that situation would've provided a license and other documents, chatted with the police officer, and maybe gotten off with a warning. (Or not.)

That's not what happened.

Bahl is legally deaf and wanted to communicate with Officer Stephen Bobrowski using a pen and a pad of paper. Unfortunately, the situation deteriorated before that could happen. 

When Bahl failed to produce his license in a timely manner, Bobrowski shoved him, then yanked Bahl by the wrist. Bahl finally reached his notebook and wrote the word "joint", choosing what was, in hindsight, a less-than-ideal way of indicating that the officer had hurt his wrist.

And that's when Bobrowski maced him.

Bahl was arrested and taken to a nearby hospital, where his eye was treated for mace burns. The hospital had a sign language interpreter on hand, but in a classic "not my job" move, she refused to serve as an intermediary between Bahl and Bobrowski, meaning that the two still couldn't have much of a discussion.

The grim comedy of errors continued when Bahl was locked up. He was given the opportunity to use a TTY machine but declined, saying that it wouldn't be much use in reaching his girlfriend. He asked to email her, but the police refused. Later, when he thought of someone he could reach via TTY, he was told he'd have to wait until morning.

When Bahl was finally interviewed the next day and given his Miranda Rights, it was done in writing. Police Sergeant Bryant Gaden said that the cost of hiring an interpreter was unjustified. 

Naturally, a lawsuit followed. 

The case was complicated, but the gist was that Bahl sued under the Americans with Disability Act, arguing that the police force had failed to accommodate his needs.

Interestingly, the courts ruled almost entirely in favor of the police:

  • Bobrowski talking with Bahl rather than allowing him to retrieve a pen and paper? Totally appropriate. According to the court, Bahl should've known that he needed to provide a driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance immediately.
  • Police denying Bahl's request to email his girlfriend? Also appropriate. As U.S. District Judge David S. Doty said in his decision, "[E]mail is not a modification of a telephone call; it is an entirely different service."
  • Apparently, the macing was fine, too.

What was not fine, however, was the department's refusal to bring in an interpreter for Bahl's interview and the Miranda warning. An appellate court ruled that "[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".

As a result, the city of St. Paul has agreed to implement officer training to help deal with hearing-impaired citizens in the future. It also forked over $20,000 to Bahl.

But the big winner of the day was Bahl's legal team, who walked away $73,450 richer. Though now that we think about it, that's just a little more than $10,000 a year for the nearly seven-year case. Which is slightly less than some attorneys' annual bowtie budget.

How's about we call it a draw?

[h/t Joel Feder]


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