Deaf man suing W.Va. officials

June 19, 2002|by DAVE McMILLION

A deaf Vermont man who alleges his rights were violated during a routine traffic stop on Interstate 81 said he is suing state and county officials "so this doesn't happen to other people with disabilities."

The American Civil Liberty Union's West Virginia chapter filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Martinsburg on Tuesday on behalf of Kent P. Richland of South Burlington, Vt.

The civil suit alleges Richland was arrested and taken to the Eastern Regional Jail in Berkeley County in June 2001 without being given the proper resources to communicate with authorities. It accuses officials of false arrest and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the West Virginia Human Rights Act.


The lawsuit names Berkeley County Sheriff's Deputy R.L. Gardner, who was the arresting officer; Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith; the Berkeley County Commission; Steve Canterbury, director of the state Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority; Berkeley County Magistrate Court and Magistrate Sandra L. Miller; and the state of West Virginia.

Kent P. Richland, 44, alleges that Deputy R.L. Gardner refused to communicate with him through writing during the traffic stop and that he was taken into custody through what his attorney called a "false arrest," according to the lawsuit and statements made during a press conference Tuesday morning at the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library.

Richland suffers from "Bartter's syndrome," a genetic disorder that caused his hearing loss, and other medical conditions including coronary artery disease, according to the lawsuit.

During the time he was held, Richland did not have enough medication for his conditions and became ill, Richland and his attorney, Harry P. Waddell, said.

At the press conference, Richland used sign language, which was relayed through interpreter Kara Russell.

Representatives from several organizations who work on behalf of disabled people were on hand for the press conference, including Martinsburg attorney Mark Jenkinson, a member of the state Independent Living Council, which helps disabled people lead independent lives.

Jenkinson said he could imagine the incident involving Richland happening in someplace like Cuba or China.

"But it happened right here in West Virginia, in these United States of America," said Jenkinson, who has used a wheelchair since suffering a spinal cord injury in a 1986 car wreck.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said many disabled people are "shunned and segregated by physical barriers and social stereotypes. Through this lawsuit, we hope to break down some of those barriers."

On June 20, 2001, Richland was on his way to Lexington, N.C., with his two sons when he entered a work zone on Interstate 81 in Berkeley County, the lawsuit says.

Gardner stopped Richland for traveling 70 mph in a 55 mph speed zone, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that Richland requested that Gardner communicate with him through writing but Gardner refused.

Waddell said he was not sure how Richland tried to communicate with Gardner. Waddell said Richland may have used hand gestures to convey his message, or he may have communicated with the officer through one of his sons.

"I wanted some answers. He would not communicate with me," Richland said through the interpreter. "I was totally upset, and I didn't want any trouble with the law."

After Richland signed a traffic citation for speeding, he attempted to hand a clipboard to Gardner through the front passenger window, the suit said. The clipboard slipped from Richland's hand and fell on the ground, the suit said.

Richland was charged with committing battery on Gardner, the suit said.

Waddell said it was alleged that Richland threw the clipboard out of the car and it struck Gardner. Richland denied that was the case.

Speaking through the interpreter, Richland alleged that after being taken to the sheriff's department for processing, he tried to tell officers he had serious health problems but was ignored.

Richland said he needed some medicine before he went to jail and an officer responded by saying that Richland probably would be freed the next morning.

Richland said he was held at the Eastern Regional Jail for about 13 hours.

The battery charge against Richland was dismissed when Gardner did not appear at the trial, the suit said.

The suit alleges the defendants failed to ensure adequate communication with Richland.

"This entire, painful ordeal could have been avoided if the arresting officer had simply allowed Kent Richland to communicate in the way he requested," Schneider said. "From start to finish, this entire episode was a disgrace to law enforcement."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress and monetary loss. It also seeks to require county police to provide and advertise sign language interpreters and other services for deaf people.

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