Michaelee Owen lawsuit prompts big changes in Pueblo's treatment of deaf prisoners

During the seven months Michaelee Owen (seen here) spent in Pueblo County Jail back in 2012, he was never provided with either a sign-language interpreter or a device that would have allowed him to communicate with anyone -- even his own mother. That won't be the case for future inmates, though. A settlement in a lawsuit filed by Owen calls for Pueblo authorities to change the way deaf prisoners are treated. And it's not the first time Owen has been part of a suit defending the rights of deaf individuals who run afoul of the law.

Representing Owen in the case was Kevin Williams of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, whose work we've previously featured in this space. Last August, for example, a suit filed by Williams forced all Hollister stores nationwide to redesign their entrances to make them handicap-accessible. And in 2012, he was the attorney of record in a lawsuit against the Adams County Sheriff's Office resulting in a $100,000 payment.

That case also revolved around the challenges faced by the deaf, and Owen was among the plaintiffs. But the meat of the matter focused on another deaf man, Timothy Siaki.

As we reported, the earlier lawsuit, also shared here, notes that Siaki and Kimberlee Moore, his girlfriend and fellow plaintiff, who's also deaf, were at a Super 8 Motel on Broadway in May 2010 when they got into an argument.

Both deny that Siaki hurt Moore, yet deputies were dispatched to the scene, with one breaking open the door to their room -- no doubt because Siaki and Moore couldn't hear them demanding entry. A deputy then ordered Siaki to the floor, but because of his condition and his inability to read lips, he didn't understand. He tried pointing to his ears and shaking his head to indicate he was deaf, but the deputy grabbed his arm and forced him to the floor "because he believed Mr. Siaki was not complying with his orders," the lawsuit contends. Siaki was also handcuffed, making it impossible for him to use sign language -- and since he's said to be incapable of reading or writing effectively, a subsequent order that he write a statement was also a flop.

Moore has difficulty writing in English, too, making an edict that she pen a statement a problem, as well. She tried to communicate that Siaki hadn't hit her, but the deputy interpreted the opposite, then thought she'd changed her story, the lawsuit maintains.

At the station, no accommodations were made to insure that Siaki understood the reading of his Miranda rights (he didn't) or any other part of the processing. And the situation remained the same for the next 25 days, after which he was finally released from custody -- because all the charges against him had been dropped.

These actions eventually resulted in Adams County paying $100,000 to the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition Legal Program, plus another $75,000 to cover attorneys fees, costs and damages to the plaintiffs.

Additionally, Judge John Kane ordered systemic changes directing that Adams County provide access to sign language interpreters for deaf arrestees, as well as create an orientation video and install deaf-friendly video phones.

Unfortunately, such accommodations weren't available in Pueblo when Owen was taken into custody.

Continue for more about the Michaelee Owen lawsuit and settlement, including two original documents. According to the settlement agreement, Owen was booked into Pueblo County Jail on May 5, 2012 and held behind bars there until October 30.

During that time, the settlement states that the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office "did not offer Mr. Owen a qualified sign language interpreter or ask whether one would help him to communicate effectively."

Instead, personnel communicated with Owen via "gestures" and "exchanges of written notes."

In a release about the case, Williams contends that these measures were insufficient, since, "like many deaf individuals, Mr. Owen's understanding and comprehension of written English is diminished." (Deaf since birth, he has long used American Sign Language as his primary means of communication.) Moreover, Williams goes on, Owen was "denied access to a TTY or telecommunications device for the deaf, so he had no means of communicating with anyone, including his mother" -- Jeanine Roybal, who joined her son as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Representatives of the Public sheriff's office and the Pueblo Police Department, which was also named in the suit, didn't admit to any wrongdoing in the case. But they signed on to an agreement that requires them from this point forward to provide sign language interpreters to any deaf person who is arrested or questioned by either agency, and take other steps mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Williams points out that the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition isn't stopping there. In conjunction with the Colorado Association of the Deaft, the CCDC has won six settlements against law-enforcement agencies for similar offenses already, and it's sent open-records-act requests to all county sheriffs' offices in Colorado in regard to policies regarding sign language interpreters and other auxiliary aids and services.

The results? According to Williams, only 35 of sixty sheriffs' departments had written policies in place, and of those, "nearly all were inadequate."

This conclusion suggests that more lawsuits may be in the offing. Look below to read the settlement agreement in the Michaelee Owen suit, followed by the original lawsuit in the Timothy Siaki case.

Michalee Owen Settlement Agreement

Timothy Siaki v. Douglas Darr

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Schmuck of the Week archive circa September 2012: "Adams County's shmucky treatment of deaf suspect Timothy Siaki settled for $100K."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts