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Saturday, December 30, 2006

911 Emergency Calls, Local Police and the ADA

Emergency! Call 911! Do local police need to keep the ADA in mind when a sign language interpreter is needed? The answer may be yes, at least when no public disturbance is occurring and in a non-criminal context.

Maria Salinas sued the City of New Braunfels, Texas, for unlawful discrimination based on her hearing disability. She is deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate.

Ms. Salinas returned home to her apartment from work and found her boyfriend motionless on her couch. Unable to rouse him, she and a neighbor called 911 for emergency help and to request an ASL interpreter. The police did not attempt to locate an interpreter either when she called 911 or after they arrived on the scene. Ms. Salinas became increasingly distraught as she was left out of the communications around her. Even after an interpreter arrived in response to Ms. Salinas’ own efforts, the police did not at first give Ms. Salinas access to the interpreter.

Ms. Salinas sued under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA. The city asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that an interpreter eventually did arrive, but, in any event, the claim should be dismissed because it arises in the context of law enforcement activity, because police response to a 911 call does not fall in the category of “services, programs or activities of a public entity” of Title II of the ADA. How can police protect the public and be subjected day-to-day to the ADA’s mandates?

Denying the motion to dismiss, the court noted that the “services, programs, or activities” language in the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act are propertly interpreted to encompass “anything a public entity does.” Police departments are covered. While prior case law found that an on-the-street police response to a disturbance involving a disabled suspect is not within the ADA’s ambit (due to the risk in such potentially life-threatening situations), that approach does not apply here where there was no threat, the scene was secure and Ms. Salinas was not a suspect.

Therefore, a city’s 911 emergency response service is subject to the ADA.

The city’s motion to dismiss Ms. Salinas’ case was denied. Whether what was provided in this case violated the ADA and Section 504 is left to be addressed later in the case.

COMMENT: The decision is a reasonable one and tailored to the facts in the particular case. It would be quite difficult for a court to attempt in the abstract to draw specific lines to distinguish, in advance, which sorts of police activity are or are not covered to which aspects of the ADA. For now, it is a positive result that, when a 911 call establishes that a person in distress needs is deaf and needs an ASL interpreter, the city’s emergency response system needs to do more than ignore that plea.

Salinas v. City of New Braunfels, 2006 WL 3751182 (Dec, 18, 2006, W.D.Tex.)

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