Last week, federal courts in Washington D.C. and Michigan issued orders affirming the civil liberties of deaf prisoners and suicidal individuals who call police for help during a mental health emergency. In Washington D.C., a federal court held that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires prisons to affirmatively provide appropriate communication services for deaf inmates. In Michigan, a federal court held that police officers ignored the protections of the 4th Amendment when they responded to a potentially suicidal individual by breaking windows and throwing tear gas canisters into his home, and ultimately shooting and killing him.
In the Washington D.C. case, Pierce v. D.C., a deaf individual was sentenced to time in a D.C. prison facility, but when he was admitted to the facility, no prison staff member assessed whether, or to what extent, he would need accommodations to ensure that he could communicate effectively with others during his incarceration. He was not provided with a qualified American Sign Language interpreter at any point during the entire 51-day period he spent in custody. He attempted to write notes to prison staff that indicated that he could not understand what was going on and that he felt abandoned. The prison staff never assessed his communication needs, but instead assumed and asserted that exchanging written notes and lip reading were adequate means of effective communication.
The federal court rejected the prison’s assumptions and held that under the Americans with Disabilities Act “prison officials have an affirmative duty to assess the potential accommodation needs of inmates with known disabilities who are taken into custody and to provide the accommodations that are necessary for those inmates to access the prison’s programs and services, without regard to whether or not the disabled individual has made a specific request for accommodation and without relying solely on the assumptions of prison officials regarding that individual’s needs.”
The court further held that the prison’s “failure to evaluate Pierce’s needs amounted to deliberate indifference to Pierce’s rights and the District’s obligations under [the Americans with Disabilities Act], [therefore] the District’s conduct constituted intentional discrimination, and thus, Pierce is entitled to compensatory damages for the mental, emotional, and physical injuries he sustained.”
In the second case, Carlson v. Fewins, a suicidal and armed individual (Carlson), who was home alone, called 911 requesting assistance. Carlson had done this in the past and officers had responded by coming to his home, and having a conversation with him inside. This time, the dispatcher told him that a deputy would want to talk to him outside and Carlson rejected that idea. Carlson then spoke to a state trooper by phone and reported feeling better after discussing his problems.
Nonetheless, officers began arriving at his home and intentionally attempting to avoid his detection. Ultimately, the police sent a 60 officer SWAT team to Carlson’s home. They surrounded his home, flattened his tires, and escorted his neighbors away. An officer then called Carlson and asked him to come outside and he again rejected that idea. The officers then cut off his gas line to deprive him of heat, spotlighted his house, and cut his electrical power. Carlson began to call his sister for help, but the police instructed his sister not to answer Carlson’s calls.
After more than two hours without seeing or hearing Carlson, the SWAT team shot 14 canisters of tear gas into the house, breaking every window in the process and denting the siding on the house. An hour later, they fired a second round of tear gas. Nine hours into the standoff, the SWAT team then tossed a “throw phone” through a broken window. The “phone” only allows a call to police, and it contains secret microphones and a hidden camera that allow for secret police surveillance of the recipient.
Around 9:00 AM, Carlson began to shout at the police about the damage to his home and threatened to sue the police. One deputy then had a ten minute conversation with Carlson, while Carlson was visibly armed, and then the deputy requested that an officer put a rifle with a scope on Carlson. A sniper then trained his rifle on Carlson and shot him.
At no time during the all-night, over 12 hour siege of Carlson’s home did any officer seek or receive a warrant for a search of the house, or seek or receive a warrant to arrest Carlson in his own home. The officers did, however, call for and receive refreshments including coffee, granola bars, and hot chocolate.
To arrest a person at home, police officers need both probable cause and either a warrant or “exigent circumstances.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the officers could not rely on the “exigent circumstances” exception in this case to make up for their failure to obtain a warrant during the 12 hour siege. The court succinctly noted: “The choice to call for granola bars but not a warrant appears to have been driven by the Sheriff’s misunderstanding of the Fourth Amendment. . . . the Team had the time—and thus the constitutional obligation—to get a warrant from a judge before entering Carlson’s house with tear gas and surveillance equipment.”
Notable, the court further held that “experts’ consistent advice to law enforcement [is] that, ‘[t]echniques of eliciting compliance on the part of [emotionally disturbed] subjects that may work with criminal subjects are not likely to work with emotionally disturbed people’ so ‘officers should remain calm, exercise restraint, reassure the subject, avoid excitement, and attempt to avoid gathering crowds.’” (Citing Michael Avery, Unreasonable Seizures of Unreasonable People: Defining the Totality of the Circumstances Relevant to Assessing the Police Use of Force against Emotionally Disturbed People, 34 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 261, 293 (2003)). If the officers had followed this expert advice, instead of treating Carlson like a terrorist, he might still be alive today.
Ultimately, the court “remand[ed] the case so a jury may decide whether the defendants’ various warrantless seizures and searches during a standoff that began with requests to save Carlson’s life and ended with a sniper shooting him dead were reasonable.”