Ethiopian immigrant Abreham Zemedagegehu sued the Arlington County sheriff and Virginia state officials in federal court, saying that he was routinely denied access to an American Sign Language interpreter during a stay at the county jail last year.
For several days, Zemedagegehu said, he didn't even know why he was arrested. He said jail officials conducted medical procedures on him without explaining them. He missed meals because he never heard the call for chow time.
When he needed to make phone calls, he said deputies gave him a TTY machine instead of a videophone. He said the TTY was useless, both because the technology has become obsolete and is no longer used in the deaf community and because it requires a command of written English that he lacks.
In arguments Thursday, lawyer Jonathan Goodrich said Zemedagegehu's six-week stay left him frightened, isolated, and subject to "an avalanche of constitutional violations" and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"They knew he was there. They knew he was suffering. But they didn't do anything about it," Goodrich said.
Lawyers for the county sheriff and state corrections officials asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. Alexander Francuzenko, representing the sheriff, said that even if Zemedagegehu's allegations are true, they do not show intentional discrimination on the part of sheriff's deputies. And while Thursday's hearing did not delve into the accuracy of Zemedagegehu's claims, Francuzenko suggested that the description of Zemedagegehu's incarceration was exaggerated.
State officials sought dismissal of the case against them on slightly different grounds, arguing that county jails are exclusively run by local sheriffs, who are elected officials. State officials who merely provide guidance to jails about the level of care for inmates can't be held responsible for any violations, said Assistant Attorney General Nancy Davidson.
Zemedagegehu, who is homeless, was arrested last year after an acquaintance accused him of stealing an iPad, which he denies. He says that he consistently requested sign-language interpreters but was ignored.
Zemedagegehu's lawyers say that the sheriff was on notice about the requirements to provide interpreters for deaf inmates following a 2010 settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections in which the state agreed to provide qualified interpreters during the booking process and when providing medical care, among other items.
The state inmates who filed that lawsuit five years ago have recently accused the Department of Corrections of failing to live up to its obligations under the settlement.