American Sign Language-Interpreted Warnings Sufficient for Qualified Immunity

by | December 19, 2018

Muschette v. Gionfriddo, 2018 (2nd Cir. 2018)

A.M., a deaf 12-year-old, became agitated over a food order at school. He ran from the school dormitory to a nearby construction area, where he grabbed a stick and rocks, and began to hit a teacher with them. The school dean called the police and reported A.M. as “out of control” and “making the situation dangerous.”

Two officers approached the construction area where A.M. was now seated, holding a large rock in his hands. An officer told A.M. to put the rock down; the dean interpreted the officer’s commands into American Sign Language. A.M. didn’t comply, so the officer warned him that he would use a TASER device if A.M. did not put down the rock. Again, the dean interpreted the warning.

When A.M. still did not comply, the officer fired the TASER device. After some struggle, the officers handcuffed him. A.M. sued the officers, claiming he did not understand any of the commands or warnings.

He claimed the use of the TASER device was excessive force because he was not adequately warned it would be used if he did not comply.

The trial court denied summary judgment, ruling there was a factual dispute about the warnings. The court of appeals reversed and ordered summary judgment be granted to the officer. Though the officer did not know what was communicated to or understood by A.M., the officer could reasonably rely on the dean to accurately interpret the warnings and commands. The officer saw the dean communicating in an animated fashion. He could also reasonably believe the dean would want to avoid any injury to A.M. and would thus try to convince A.M. to drop the rock and comply.

This case isn’t much different than any other case where officers have time to give a warning prior to using force. Officers should always do their best to ensure warnings and commands are understood. The officer did his best to address the communication barrier, thus he is entitled to qualified immunity.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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