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

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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.
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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