Sheriff's office pays $62,500 for handcuffing deaf man, silencing him

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 28, 2013 

BLAINE - Whatcom County has reached a $62,500 settlement with an elderly deaf man who was handcuffed for at least a half-hour by sheriff's deputies - cutting off his means of communicating - over an allegedly made-up story that he had pointed a loaded gun at his wife.

On the evening of April 21, 2011, a lamp started flickering in the Birch Bay home of Donald Pratt, meaning someone was at the door. Pratt, a 76-year-old man with diabetes, was watching television with his wife and a friend. All three of them are deaf.

Pratt answered the door. On a piece of paper Deputy Ryan Rathbun wrote: "Are you Donald?"

Pratt nodded, and a second deputy put him into handcuffs, according to a complaint filed by Pratt's attorney in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Pratt tried to ask why he had been detained. His questions came out as grunts. The officers took him outside to a patrol car. Pratt couldn't ask for an interpreter and couldn't say he needed to go to the bathroom. He later soiled himself in the car; the deputies claimed they weren't aware of that.

"But there's no reason for him to say that," said Pratt's Bellingham attorney, Larry Hildes. "It was very embarrassing."

The county disputes how long Pratt remained in the car, cuffed and unable to communicate. The complaint alleges Pratt was detained for "at least two hours, and probably longer." But dispatch logs show deputies were getting ready to leave the scene within an hour and 40 minutes of arrival, and deputies said Pratt was handcuffed for about a half-hour.

"But time goes very slowly," Hildes noted, "when you're in the back of a police car."

Eventually, Pratt was free to go. Deputies took his guns, four pistols and five long guns, for safe-keeping. Law enforcement kept the guns for a week.

It turned out that Pratt's son, Tom, had made a police report in which he claimed he saw his father aim a pistol at his mother. Tom had been kicked out of the house several months ago and his parents wouldn't let him borrow a motor home, the complaint alleges.

Tom made the report at the Blaine Police Department. Like his parents, Tom is deaf. To take the report, police needed to call around for a sign-language interpreter - and if someone really had a gun to their head, Hildes said, that would have wasted precious time.

It had been six decades since the last time Donald Pratt had a brush with the law. Tom, however, had a criminal record in California and Washington.

The younger Pratt was never charged with false reporting of a crime, said Whatcom County Assistant Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Gibson, who assisted in representing the county in the lawsuit. Gibson said if the county had pursued a case against the son, it would have been he-said, she-said, with not enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In the original claim paperwork, Pratt sought $200,000 compensation. Court records show the county admits it did not give the elder Pratt a chance to communicate before he was put into handcuffs.

But given the "highly unusual circumstances" of the incident - in which all four people involved were deaf - "it's very difficult to say, 'Oh, the officers should have done this,'" Gibson said.

The settlement, reached last week, requires the county to develop a policy to better serve people with hearing disabilities.

Before April 2011, the sheriff's office did not have any policy in place. That has already been fixed, said Sheriff Bill Elfo. Now the sheriff's office has a list of on-call sign-language interpreters, and deputies are better trained to work with deaf citizens, he said.

The county drew on suggestions from local advocacy groups and other police departments to come up with the guidelines.

Hildes commended the sheriff's office on a thorough effort to prevent something like this from happening again.

"I anticipate not having to do another case against the sheriff's office about this," Hildes said. "I hope other (law enforcement) agencies will look at this case ... before another injustice is done."

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