Language and the Law
in Deaf Communities
Jason had graduated from high school, was nineteen, and was living on his own when the police arrested him on suspicion of rape. He was alone in his apartment when the police suddenly arrived, handcuffed him, and took him to the local police station. Once there, Jason was provided with an interpreter, a police officer who had completed less than ten weeks of a beginning sign language class. The police officer proceeded to interpret the Miranda rights. After the interpretation, Jason was provided with a printed waiver form, on which he placed his initials. In English, the form states that by signing the document, the undersigned understands and waives the constitutional rights contained in the Miranda warning.
The police then interrogated Jason for several hours. During his interrogation, the police officer interpreter attempted to voice in English what Jason was signing. Out of frustration, Jason tried to communicate with the police by attempting to speak to them while he signed. Jason attempted to understand what the police were saying to him by trying to read the lips of the police officers and to decipher the signs that the signing police officer was attempting to form. At the conclusion of the interrogation, the police officer interpreter wrote a summary of what he believed Jason had said. The summary was tantamount to a confession. Jason was then held in jail, initially unable to post the bond set by the court.
This scenario raises three important questions. Did Jason truly understand his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and his Sixth Amendment right to consult with an attorney both prior to and during the interrogation? If he understood those rights, did he actually intend to waive them by signing the form? If Jason understood his rights and knowingly waived them, did he really confess to the crime of rape as the interpreting police officer alleged?
I interviewed Jason several times subsequent to his arrest but prior to trial. We used ASL to converse. During those interviews, I focused on Jasonís understanding of his interpreterís signing, his understanding of his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights, and his understanding of the waiver form that he signed. I also assessed Jasonís speechreading, reading, and ASL skills. I did not explore anything relating to the allegations against him since this information is irrelevant to whether the Miranda rights had been understood.
Talking with Jason, I found him to be confused about what was happening and about the legal process. He was adamant about one thing, however: He had not raped anyone. Why then did he waive his rights and allegedly confess?
In terms of understanding his rights, Jason told me that the interpreting police officer did not know how to sign and that speechreading did not increase his understanding. Jason did not know that he did not have to speak to the police or that he had a right to talk with an attorney before they asked him questions. Only during our interview, in which we reviewed the Miranda waiver form together, did he understand the meaning of his constitutional rights. The fact that Jason could not understand his rights by means of speechreading is unsurprising given the poor speechreading ability he displayed during my language assessment. While Jason could speechread Hi, how are you? and other phrases predictable by the context, his ability to speechread unfamiliar material averaged just one in twenty-five words.
Even if he had understood his rights, did he understand that he was waiving them by initialing the form? He initialed the form, he told me, because he thought it indicated that the police officer was excusing him. For Jason, waiver meant that he had been excused. The Miranda waiver form used is similar to what is used in many jurisdictions. (See Appendix A for the complete waiver form.) The fact that Jason did not understand the form is not surprising. According to my assessment, he possessed, at best, a third-grade reading ability.