A jury has awarded $100,000 to a deaf Van Nuys man jailed overnight in Pasadena by police officers who failed to provide him with a sign language interpreter so he could communicate effectively.
Jeno Koth, 32, who sued the Police Department for false imprisonment, emotional distress and violation of his civil rights, said he was pleased with the panel's decision, reached April 30 in Alhambra Superior Court.
"I hope the verdict will send a message to all police departments that they must adopt a policy and procedure for dealing with the deaf community," he said in a recent interview during which he used a special telephone for the deaf.
Koth, a cabinetmaker who emigrated from Hungary in 1981, was arrested at a Wells Fargo Bank in January, 1988, after a teller cashing his check thought he was the same man who had robbed the facility a week earlier.
During the 22 hours he was in custody, police never provided him with a sign language interpreter, despite his repeated requests, Koth said. Instead, police communicated with him through written notes, which the deaf man said confused him.
Another man was arrested in the robbery two months later and subsequently pleaded guilty to the crime, Koth's attorney, John C. Taylor said.
Taylor argued during the trial that, if police had called in a sign language interpreter, his client would have been released from custody much sooner because police could have quickly determined that they had the wrong man.
Leaders of the deaf community said police could have easily obtained a sign language interpreter through a 24-hour emergency hot line called Lifesigns.
But the attorney defending the city of Pasadena, Carol Ann Rohr, said Koth never requested an interpreter. She said police did not think such a service was necessary because they seemed to be communicating effectively with the arrested man.
"They were communicating with him in writing and, in the context of the moment, the communication appeared to be satisfactory," she said.
Police decided to incarcerate Koth overnight after he wrote "I know robbery" in response to a written question from an officer who asked him if he knew the bank robber.
Koth testified that he wrote "I know robbery" because he thought the officer was referring to his employer, whose name was Robert.
After the verdict, Taylor said, "the jury's biggest comment was that they hoped that this would act as a deterrent to other police departments who don't have a policy and procedure to deal with deaf people. It was clear that between the police and Mr. Koth, there was tremendous confusion as to why he had been arrested."
Marcella Meyer, chief executive officer of the Greater Los Angeles Council on Deafness, said deaf people frequently run into problems with law enforcement officers.
"Incidents like that are happening all too often," she said.
Recently, she said, a deaf man arrested by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies in West Hollywood requested a sign language interpreter, but authorities "refused to give him one, saying he could write back and forth."
Meyer said the man, who was arrested for allegedly pushing a cable television representative, has filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Department, saying his civil rights were violated. GLAD also plans to file a complaint with the Justice Department on his behalf, Meyer said.
Voicing satisfaction with the verdict in the Koth case, Meyer added: "If police departments find themselves having to pay out big awards, it will open their eyes."
But Rohr said the decision was disappointing because the officers acted "reasonably, under the circumstances." She said Pasadena is considering filing a motion for a new trial.