Lack of sign language interpreters during criminal proceeding is potential violation of ADA


Like many deaf individuals, Cameron Luke has trouble speaking and reading English. He also has difficulty lip reading. So in order to effectively communicate, Luke requires an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. Such an interpreter was never provided during Luke’s case for marijuana possession.

No interpreter was provided the night of his arrest during a traffic stop, even though his mother, who was watching the scene via FaceTime, urged the officers to provide him with one. No interpreter was present when Luke was booked and detained at Lee County Jail. Nor was one present when a Lee County justice of the peace arraigned him and released him on bond. No interpreter ever explained to Luke his legal rights, the charges against him, or the terms and conditions of his bail.

The county court said that an interpreter would be provided for the hearing at which Luke was going to plead guilty in exchange for one year of probation. But the court did not follow through on that commitment. Instead, it insisted that Luke’s mother, who has only basic knowledge of sign language, interpret for her son during the hearing. Thus, no qualified interpreter ever explained to Luke the terms of his probation.

Luke’s experience on probation, which began with Lee County’s Community Supervision Corrections Department but was later transferred to San Jacinto County’s, was more of the same. Neither department provided Luke with an interpreter for his meetings with probation officers. Just like at the hearing, the probation officers instead had Luke’s mother interpret for him. No qualified interpreter ever explained to Luke what happened during those meetings or whether he was satisfying the terms of his probation.

Contending that the lack of interpreters left him “isolated and confused” during the criminal proceedings, Luke sued the following entities under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act: (1) Lee County, which operated the jail and court; (2) the Community Supervision and Corrections Departments of both Lee County and San Jacinto County (the “Supervision Departments”), the Texas state agencies that oversaw his probation; and (3) the State of Texas. Luke sought injunctive relief against the Supervision Departments and the State of Texas and compensatory and nominal damages from all defendants.

The district court dismissed all of Luke’s claims at the pleading stage. The 5th reversed the dismissal as to Lee County, vacated the dismissal as to the Supervision Department, and affirmed the dismissal against Texas.


A. Lee County and Supervision Department

The district court dismissed Luke’s claims against Lee County and the Supervision Departments on sovereign immunity grounds, using the same reasoning for all those entities. But there is a basic problem with its sovereign immunity dismissal of the county: Lee County is a political subdivision of Texas, rather than an arm of the State, and thus does not enjoy state sovereign immunity. See Stratta.

To make out a claim under Title II, Luke had to show: (1) that he is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) that he was excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, services, programs, or activities for which the public entity is responsible, or was otherwise being discriminated against; and (3) that such discrimination is because of his disability.

Luke’s deafness makes him a qualified individual with a disability. And Luke can show that he was discriminated against because of his disability as both Lee County and the Supervision Departments knew he was deaf yet failed to provide an accommodation despite multiple requests for an interpreter. See Windham.

Luke also alleges that he was denied the benefit of “meaningful access” to public services. He says that he was not able to understand his legal rights or effectively communicate throughout his proceedings. Not being able to understand a court hearing or meeting with a probation officer is, by definition, a lack of meaningful access to those public services. Indeed, a core purpose of Title II is for public entities to “accommodate persons with disabilities in the administration of justice.” See Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004).

It was on this element that the district court rejected Luke’s claims. It reasoned that Luke was not denied a public service because he “successfully participated in, availed himself of, and completed the terms of his probation.” In other words, the criminal case turned out okay for Luke.

This no-harm-no-foul theory is inconsistent with the ADA. Nothing in the statute’s text or the caselaw applying it requires Luke to have alleged a bad outcome—something like being wrongly arrested, getting his bail or probation revoked, or mistakenly entering a guilty plea because of confusion without an interpreter. And for good reason: Lack of meaningful access is itself the harm under Title II, regardless of whether any additional injury follows. Luke’s Title II injury is not being able to understand the judges and probation officers as a nondeaf defendant would.

Under the district court’s reasoning, a state could refuse to provide an ASL interpreter at a deaf individual’s trial and then avoid Title II liability if the defendant is acquitted. Courts have rightly rejected that position. The positive outcome of Luke’s criminal case may, of course, affect his damages. But it does not allow courts to escape their ADA obligations.

Even with this understanding of Title II, the Supervision Departments contend there is no ADA violation because Luke’s mother served as an interpreter. But taking Luke’s allegations as true, his mother knows only basic sign language. His mother’s involvement thus did not fully inform him of the proceedings or otherwise provide the meaningful access the ADA requires. What is more, public entities cannot force a disabled person’s family member to provide the interpretation services for which the entity is responsible. See 28 C.F.R. § 35.160(c)(2).

Luke thus has sufficiently stated a Title II claim. This means his claim against Lee County should proceed past the pleading stage.

The abrogation inquiry for Title II claims requires an inquiry into: (1) which aspects of the State’s alleged conduct violated Title II; (2) to what extent such misconduct also violated the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) insofar as such misconduct violated Title II but did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, whether Congress’s purported abrogation of sovereign immunity as to that class of conduct is nevertheless valid.

As to the Supervision Department, we hold only that Luke’s allegations satisfy step one of the abrogation test. The inquiry should now proceed to the second and, if necessary, third step. These difficult abrogation questions would benefit from full briefing and initial consideration by the district court.

B. State of Texas

We struggle to see what suing Texas directly does for Luke given that he has also sued the state agencies (the Supervision Departments) that oversaw his probation. In any event, the district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing Texas for improper service. For plaintiffs to sue a state in federal court, they must either: (1) serve the state’s “chief executive officer”; or (2) provide service in a manner prescribed by that state’s law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(j)(2). Luke did neither.

The governor is Texas’s chief executive officer, but Luke served the Secretary of State. See Tex. Const. art. IV, § And no state law authorizes the Secretary of State to accept service on behalf of Texas in ADA cases.

We REVERSE the dismissal of Luke’s claim against Lee County, VACATE the dismissal against the Supervision Departments, and AFFIRM the dismissal against Texas. We REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion, including consideration of whether Congress validly abrogated state sovereign immunity for the claims against the Supervisions Departments.