A Deaf man from Rhode Island, David Alves, won a $25,000 settlement from the city of Woonsocket, RI — relating to an incident in July 2015 in which David was arrested by police officers for making an obscene gesture and detained overnight in jail without an interpreter.
What happened from David’s perspective: On the night of July 8, David went to the City Side club with three other friends to celebrate a friend’s birthday party. At 1 am (on the next day), his friend seemed to be “out of control” — so the bartender gave David the friend’s receipt so he could help him. It was then that a bouncer walked up to the friend and tried to touch him. David told the bouncer that the friend was fine and he didn’t need to touch him — which caused the bouncer to turn on him and tell him to leave the bar.
David said he felt uncomfortable and told him to stay back and that he would call the police. The guard said he would call the police, too, then left. David was able to sign the receipt.
Two police officers showed up at the bar and asked David to leave. Officers questioned the bar staff but did not question David. David told officers he didn’t do anything wrong and tried to explain the situation, and then proceeded to walk away. As David was walking, he saw the bouncer standing by the club door, laughing at him. David got upset and signed, “bullshit” towards him.
Immediately a police officer grabbed his wrists, handcuffed him behind his back, and was placed in a patrol car and transported to jail — without an explanation of why he was arrested. At jail, David wrote on pen and paper asking for a sign language interpreter, but was denied. David was placed in a cell overnight and released in the morning.
Police said they arrested David for violating a city ordinance against making an obscene gesture. They also told a Deaf friend who went to the police station that David was jailed for disorderly conduct but that he would be out in the morning no problem, that he needs to take it as a learning experience.
When David was released, he got a summons to appear in municipal court for violating the city ordinance. But several months later, a judge dismissed the charge.
David, with the help of the ACLU American Civil Liberties Union of RI and the RI Disability Law Center, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last April against the City of Woonsocket.The lawsuit said David was unlawfully detained and arrested, that the officers did not take necessary steps for effective communication, discriminated him based on his disability, and did not give accommodations for his disability.
It argued that the “bullshit” sign is an ASL gesture and is a form of expression that is considered “protected speech” under the First Amendment. The lawsuit also argued that the city ordinance is unconstitutional. Here is what the ordinance says.
[Disorderly conduct prohibited: A person shall be guilty of disorderly
conduct if, with the purpose of causing public danger, alarm, disorder,
nuisance, or if his conduct is likely to cause public danger, alarm, disorder
or nuisance and he willfully (sic.) does any of the following acts in a
(k) Uses abusive or obscene language or makes an obscene gesture]
This lawsuit is what resulted in the settlement agreement in which the city has no liability but must do the following: repeal the “disorderly conduct” ordinance, create an “effective communication policy” for deaf/hoh people, and must provide notice to the public about their rights to auxiliary aids and services and to train staff, and the $25,000 award to David and attorneys fees.
David said in a statement that this settlement will send a very clear message to all law enforcement in Rhode Island that they cannot violate anybody’s civil rights… that he was personally very glad that his rights has been vindicated and that this settlement will protect other people from having to go through what he endured.