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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language and the Law in Deaf Communities

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The civilizing nature of a criminal justice system is determined by its procedures, that is, how a person suspected of a crime is processed through the truth-seeking process, starting with arrest and ending with the completion of punishment. When it appears a crime has been committed, the criminal process seeks to accomplish three fundamental goals. First, investigators search for relevant evidence to determine what occurred and who is responsible. Second, if from the evidence it appears, or in legal terms there is “probable cause to believe,” a crime has been committed and that a particular individual committed it, there must be an analysis of the relevant information. In the United States, this is accomplished by trial, whereby a jury analyzes the relevant information (i.e., the evidence) presented to them, aided by the lawyers’ elucidating (or obfuscating) reviews of the evidence (closing arguments). Third, if the trial indicates the defendant has committed a crime, punishment must be meted out. Punishment can take the form of a confiscation of property (a fine), liberty (imprisonment), or life (execution).

Clearly, the ability of the government to investigate crime, determine guilt, and punish offenders is crucial to maintaining social harmony. But it is also a power that permits the government to unleash its awesome resources, including the use of brute force, against a single individual.

The Power to Arrest and Interrogate

Imagine . . . you are stopping for gas on your way home from work. You’re in a hurry. It has been a busy and tiring day. But the kids will be home from school and will be alone if you don’t get there soon. You buy gas as quickly as you can. But, just as you are pulling away, a police car pulls in front of you, blocking your path. You sit, confused and staring at the flashing police lights. Two officers get out of the police cruiser and approach your car. As you are fumbling to roll down your window, you hear one of the approaching police officers say in a loud, stern voice, “Get out of the car!” “OK, but why?” you ask. “Get out of the car now!” is the response. You get out, and the officer tells you to put your hands on top of the car. Confused and stunned, you feel the officer’s hands move down your body as he searches you. “You’re under arrest,” he says. Arrest? You feel the handcuffs on your wrists and hear the snap as they lock. You try to think about what is happening, but fear and shock have washed over you. You have a vague sense of people staring as you are placed in the back of the police cruiser. You stare out the window as the cruiser pulls out of the gas station where your car is still sitting at the pump. You think about your kids. And questions start running through your mind. Why is this happening? What will happen next? What should I do?

Several things happen at the moment a police officer takes a person into custody. The individual immediately, and without warning, loses important freedoms—to move about, to speak with others, to associate with others—depriving him of the social, emotional, and physical resources of his own individual world and of the larger world. Arrest also initiates an adversarial relationship between the individual and the government. Suddenly, the incredible resources of the government are directed against the individual for the purpose of obtaining a confession or conviction of the suspected crime. Arrest immediately places the individual’s future liberty in jeopardy. The individual may realize that if innocence cannot be shown, he or she may be labeled a criminal, fined, incarcerated, and, in some circumstances, killed.

The focusing of governmental power, the acutely unequal social dynamic of an individual being isolated and confronted by police, and the risk of a criminal penalty can loom over an individual like a raised fist over a frightened child. These dynamics have made police interrogation such an effective tool in law enforcement, allowing police to ferret out information from individuals who would otherwise be unwilling to provide any. But its compulsive nature renders the individual vulnerable and easily led into agreeing to things which later, when viewed suspiciously through the lens of alleged criminality, may appear quite incriminating.

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