AUGUSTA, Maine — David Brown was driving his car behind his 17-year-old daughter’s truck near Oxford Plains Speedway in August 2009 when he saw a man on a motorcycle nearly collide with his child’s vehicle. The man on the motorcycle later died from the resulting accident. When police investigated, Brown was one of two witnesses, but the local Police Department didn’t interview him because he is deaf.
That was the conclusion of the Maine Human Rights Commission on Monday when it decided the Oxford Police Department discriminated against Brown by not giving him an interpreter at the scene of the accident. The commission, however, decided in a split vote that the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department, which arrived immediately after the local police, did not discriminate against the man because its officers did not interview either witness.
When Oxford police officers arrived at the accident on Aug. 29, 2009, they made sure the injured man lying in the road was safe and that traffic was rerouted. When police made their way to the teenager, they found her calm and not visibly upset, according to police documents sent to the Human Rights Commission. Soon the police asked her father what happened and the girl translated for him in sign language. She never asked for an interpreter, according to the Police Department’s statements.
But that’s a much different story from the one Brown and his attorney told the commission on Monday. The girl was too upset to translate that day and asked the police officers to get her father an interpreter so he would understand what was going on, according to attorney Amy Sneirson of the Maine Center on Deafness. The teen was so upset that she was not able to interpret everything the police were saying to her dad, the girl wrote in documents given to the commission.
“It was inconvenient to deal with it. But her father needed an interpreter for two reasons: for one to tell his story. But he was also the father of a 17-year-old girl whose car insurance was his insurance; this directly impacted him,” Sneirson said. “Police should not use family members as interpreters unless it’s an emergency, life or death, which it wasn’t for Mr. Brown or [his daughter].”
Police took written statements from another witness and from Brown. This, the Police Department argued, was enough.
But Sneirson said Brown only had a fourth-grade understanding of English and could not effectively communicate that way.
The Human Rights Commission investigator asked commissioners to find that the Police Department discriminated against the deaf man.
“It was plausible [his daughter] was in a very emotional state. I think she should not have been expected to interpret for her father, which was what the police officers did in this case. He needed an interpreter to provide effective communication to police since his minor daughter was involved,” investigator Angela Tizon said Monday.
The commission agreed with the investigator in a 3-1 vote.
Brown also filed a complaint against the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department for the same thing. That police agency took over the investigation of the accident that same day in August 2009 and did not get the man an interpreter. But in a 2-2 split vote, the commission decided the sheriff’s office did not discriminate because its officers did not interview either witness, thus treating both witnesses equally.
Two commissioners disagreed with that.
Joseph Perry said the police records from the sheriff’s office indicated the officers did try to contact the hearing-able witness, but “brushed Mr. Brown off” when he called the office.
A. Mavourneen Thompson, who also argued that the sheriff’s office discriminated, said the information from that police agency had a weighty influence on whether the District Attorney’s Office would prosecute Brown’s daughter. Because of that, Brown should have been able to clarify his statement by speaking in sign language, rather than taking his written statement because he is unable to write well, Thompson said.
The two other commissioners, Paul Vestal and Sallie Chandler, both said the sheriff’s office did not interview the other witness, but likely would have interviewed Brown and the other witness if the District Attorney’s Office asked them to for court purposes. As it were, “there was no need for other interviews,” Vestal said.
“The sheriff’s office is not obligated to interview every witness unless they think the [court] case could go forward,” Chandler said.
Because the vote was a tie, the commission did not find reasonable grounds for discrimination, and thus the sheriff’s office is free from the accusation.