Language and the Law
in Deaf Communities|
Ceil Lucas, Editor
Society knows very well how to oppress a man and has methods more subtle than death. (André Gide, In Memoriam Oscar Wilde)The government’s ability to arrest and interrogate an individual suspected of having committed a crime is a police power fundamental to maintaining the social harmony of a society. But, for the individual who suddenly finds himself forcibly restrained, isolated from the outside world, and subjected to questioning by the police, police interrogation can be terrifying, rendering the individual susceptible to misunderstandings, misstatements, and manipulation. When the individual arrested is Deaf, the linguistic and cultural gulf that separates him from his hearing accusers compounds his sense of fear and isolation. As a result, the Deaf suspect is all the more likely to misstate facts, to unwittingly agree to suggested statements and scenarios that imply culpability, and to make false confessions. Such statements, even if recanted, are often used at a later trial to persuade a jury that the individual committed a crime.
In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that an arrested individual—afraid, alone, and under the compulsive pressure of police questioning—can easily be led into making false statements. The danger that such compulsion poses to the truth-seeking process and to our rights as individuals to be free from inordinate governmental pressure during the criminal process led the Court to a landmark decision. In Miranda v. Arizona, (384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602), the Supreme Court held that prior to interrogating an individual who has been taken into custody, the police must inform the individual of certain constitutional rights. This explanation, known as the Miranda warning, reminds the suspect that he has the right to remain silent (per the Fifth Amendment) and the right to the assistance of counsel (per the Sixth Amendment). The Court reasoned that knowledge of these rights, that is, knowing that one need not answer questions posed by the police and knowing that one may consult with an attorney at any time before or during interrogation, will reduce somewhat the sense of isolation, fear, and duress, which renders individuals susceptible to suggestion and manipulation.
The question this study addresses is whether Deaf Americans are afforded the same knowledge and understanding prior to and during police interrogation as hearing Americans. If a Deaf individual who uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate is not provided with a sign language interpreter at all during the reading of the Miranda rights or subsequent interrogation, he or she has obviously not been informed of his or her rights. Accordingly, any subsequent statements made by the Deaf suspect—whether written, gestured, signed, or vocalized—must be excluded from a later trial. A linguistic study is unnecessary to resolve this simple legal question.
The more difficult question is whether a Deaf person who has been provided an interpreter understands her rights and, therefore, can avail herself of their protections to the same extent as a hearing American. What effect does the level of interpreting competence have on the ability to interpret linguistically complex discourse such as the Miranda warning and police interrogation? Police, court administrators, and judges are largely uninformed that this is even an issue. The grave consequence of this understandable ignorance is that the Mirandizing and subsequent interrogation of Deaf suspects is routinely interpreted by individuals who lack the skill necessary to achieve either a clear understanding in Deaf defendants of their constitutional rights or the questions posed to them during interrogation.