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You Have the Right to a Sign Language Expert

From: Los Angeles Times, CA - Nov 14, 2003

Police must provide an interpreter when questioning the deaf -- and not just any interpreter can get the crucial details right.

By Mike Anton, Times Staff Writer

On television, a cop reading someone his Miranda rights is a robotic cliche. But there's nothing routine when the suspect is a deaf person. In fact, the deaf can lose their constitutional rights in the time it takes to raise an eyebrow.

In the nuanced lexicon that is American Sign Language, a raised eyebrow while leaning the upper body to the right are crucial movements when conveying Miranda warnings against self-incrimination. Failing to do so profoundly changes the syntax of Miranda - and its meaning.

"If an interpreter lacks the ability to do that, it means that the phrase 'If you can't afford an attorney, one will be appointed free of charge if you wish' is understood to a deaf person as 'You can't afford an attorney and one is being appointed for you,' " said Rob Hoopes, a professor of sign language interpretation at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio, who has studied how the deaf are treated by police.

"So they don't ask for an attorney. They just sit there in silence," he added. "And if you don't ask for an attorney, you are agreeing to go on with the interrogation."

When a deaf person becomes the target of a police investigation, the communications gulf can lead to faulty interrogations that can strip suspects of their rights - and ultimately their freedom.

"We need to keep educating deaf people that they have a right to have a qualified interpreter when they're interviewed by police - and to keep educating police to call for an interpreter when interviewing deaf people," said Patricia Hughes, chief executive of the Greater Los Angeles Council on Deafness.

Federal law requires police to provide a sign language interpreter when questioning a deaf person. The deaf council's nonprofit LIFESIGNS Inc. gets 10 to 20 requests a month for a trained interpreter in criminal cases - from those who've been arrested, and from police.

But advocates for the deaf say it's more common for authorities to use parents or friends of the suspect, or officers with limited training in sign language, when questioning a deaf person.

Hoopes studied the performance of three levels of expertise by sign language interpreters in conveying the legal rights contained in the Miranda warnings, the basic constitutional rights in the United States against self-incrimination, to remain silent, and to legal counsel, among others. He found that deaf subjects were able to understand only one in 20 words signed by beginning interpreters - those with a year of experience. Those who had completed an associate's degree in interpreting did much better, but still conveyed little grammar - which left the meaning of Miranda muddy. Only interpreters with 10 or more years of training were able to get across the nuances, Hoopes said.

Consider just one word: right. It could mean a legal right, or a direction. It could mean "right now" or "OK." Or a political philosophy. It's all too easy, advocates for the deaf say, for an inexperienced interpreter to get it wrong.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the average deaf high school student has a fourth-grade reading ability, experts at the Gallaudet Research Institute say. To many who can't hear, the written word is akin to a second language.

"If a police officer pulls over someone who's deaf for speeding, then communicating with a note is fine," said Eve Hill, an attorney with the Western Law Center for Disability Rights in Los Angeles. "But if it's any more serious than a speeding ticket, police need an experienced sign interpreter."

The center in September settled a federal civil rights lawsuit with the Los Angeles Police Department in a case that arose from the 1999 arrest of a 72-year-old deaf man whose attempt to communicate with officers using sign language was seen as an aggressive act. Police who responded to a report of a parking lot scuffle knocked Sanford Diamond to the ground, injuring him. Diamond was held for hours - why, he didn't know. Charges against him eventually were dropped.

An officer trained in finger spelling - not sign language - tried to communicate with Diamond.

"Imagine having the conversation we're having now if I had to s-p-e-l-l o-u-t e-v-e-r-y w-o-r-d with my hands," Hill said. "You wouldn't understand what's going on."

Diamond won $130,000 in damages from the LAPD, which also agreed to provide deaf suspects, witnesses and crime victims with a sign language interpreter within 45 minutes, better train its officers and do outreach among deaf people.

"In society, the deaf are looked at differently than other language minorities," Hoopes said. "You never could imagine one of us having a year of college Spanish attempting to interpret for a Spanish-speaking person in a capital criminal case.

"But," he added, "somehow, sign language doesn't seem as complicated to people who aren't deaf."

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times



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