Sheriff's office to change policies in wake of unlawful arrest

Published on Wed, Aug 28, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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The unlawful arrest and ill treatment of an elderly, deaf Blaine man has brought about a change of policy for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. 

Last week, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office settled a federal civil suit that awarded 76-year-old Blaine resident Donald Pratt $62,000 in damages and established a policy for how the department treats and communicates with people who are blind or deaf in the future.

The case, Pratt v. County of Whatcom, stemmed from a lawsuit filed in November 2012 that alleged the constitutional and statutory rights of Blaine residents Donald and Linda Pratt were violated, and that they were discriminated against because of their disability. 

According to the complaint documents, on the evening of April 21, 2011, the Pratts were watching television in their home with a guest when several Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies arrived in squad cars with lights flashing. 

All three people present in the home were deaf. Deputies entered the home, and Donald Pratt, who had no prior criminal record, was arrested, handcuffed and held in a squad car for more than two hours without explanation.

Because he was handcuffed, Donald Pratt was unable to use his hands (by writing or sign language) to effectively communicate with sheriff’s deputies, yet he still tried unsuccessfully to demand an interpreter, and to ask why he had been arrested and what the charges were.

Eventually an interpreter was brought to Donald Pratt. However, according to the documents, the plaintiff was never released from his handcuffs so he could communicate with the interpreter and a sheriff’s deputy shined a light directly into his eyes during the entire time so there was no way to see what the interpreter was telling him.

Once Donald Pratt was released from his handcuffs, the deputies brought him back into his house and demanded to know where he kept his guns. After handing over his guns from a locked cabinet, the officers confiscated them and refused to give him any explanation. The deputies later told Linda Pratt that her husband threatened to kill his son, which turned out to be a false claim. 

Deputies questioned Linda Pratt as though she was a victim of domestic violence, which she was not. Donald Pratt later found out that the entire incident was allegedly predicated on a baseless claim by his son, Tom, who was angry about being evicted from the Pratt home.

Pratt was not charged with a crime, and was eventually released. 

According to the lawsuit complaint, “plaintiffs sustained deprivation of their second, fourth, fifth, eighth, and fourteenth amendment rights, and the right to be treated equally by a public agency pursuant to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, deprivation of liberty, deprivation of Property without just cause, ongoing pain and suffering-physical and emotional, and ongoing injury physical and emotional.”

In response to the suit, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office has revised their policies to reflect the need for better communication with the disabled population. 

The new policy states that “bureau chiefs will jointly develop and maintain a master list … of qualified interpreters or responsible community members fluent in deaf communication methods (e.g. ASL, Signed English) whom employees can contact … to assist deaf individuals,” and that “handcuffing a deaf individual whose primary method of communication is ASL completely removes that person’s ability to communicate and can have the same behavioral and psychological effects of gagging a hearing person.” 

The policy further suggests that under such circumstances, “deputies should immediately redouble their efforts to communicate to such individuals what is going on and why they are handcuffed.”

At press time, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office had not returned phone calls for comment.