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December 9, 2003

DAKOTA COUNTY: Lack of sign language interpreter prompts suit

From: St. Paul Pioneer Press, MN - Dec 9, 2003

BY AMY SHERMAN Pioneer Press

A deaf sex offender alleges Dakota County violated his rights when officials didn't provide a sign language interpreter for everything from Bible study in the jail to meetings with his probation officer.

In a lawsuit filed in Dakota County District Court last week, 34-year-old Paul Stewart Tonstad alleges that the county violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Tonstad wasn't provided an American Sign Language interpreter at the jail for orientation or for classes on anger management and parenting, according to the lawsuit. Also, his request for closed captioning on the jail television went unanswered, and for a period of time in the jail, he was denied access to telephone services for the deaf.

On at least three occasions, Tonstad's request for an interpreter to talk to his probation officer was ignored, according to the suit. As a result of not understanding his probation agreements, he violated the rules and was sent back to jail, the suit alleges.

Tonstad pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sexual conduct in 1997 for sexually touching a young girl he knew while living in Eagan. He was placed on probation and after violating the terms twice — by leaving the state without permission and failing to follow the rules of probation — he was incarcerated for several weeks in the county jail in 2001 and 2002. He also was sentenced to nearly three years of prison after his second probation violation.

"As a result of Dakota County failing to provide an (American Sign Language) interpreter throughout his incarcerations and while on probation, Mr. Tonstad has been incarcerated while not understanding what had occurred.

He has received no educational benefits available to inmates who can hear and which are meant to help rehabilitate inmates for life in the community after their incarcerations," states the suit filed by attorney Kathleen Hagen of the Minnesota Disability Law Center.

Karen Schaffer, first assistant county attorney, said she could not comment about ongoing litigation. County officials in the sheriff's office and corrections department declined to comment.

Earlier this year, the state Human Rights Department rejected a similar claim from Tonstad when it found no probable cause that the county discriminated against him. Among the state's findings: A district court judge determined that a lack of an interpreter at a meeting between Tonstad and his probation officer was not the cause of his absconding from supervision, and there was no corroboration that Tonstad made repeated requests for interpretation that were ignored.

Tonstad's probation officer told the court that he communicated with Tonstad by writing notes or on a computer and that Tonstad never asked for an interpreter, according to a 2002 court proceeding. Tonstad didn't say that he couldn't understand the conditions of his probation because he did not have an interpreter until after he violated probation a second time, the probation officer testified. Tonstad signed a probation agreement and sex offender registration.

But Tonstad writes at the elementary school level, and the probation officer should have recognized he needed an interpreter, Hagen said in an interview.

The Dakota County Community Corrections policy strongly recommends an interpreter be used when explaining the rules of probation during the first appointment or when there is a potential violation. The county employee's ability to communicate with the client should be considered when deciding continued use of interpreter services, the policy states.

Tonstad's suit asks the county to pay $18,500 for punitive damages and emotional distress and to pay for sex offender treatment. The suit also asks the court to immediately provide interpreters for deaf inmates and probation clients.

Tonstad is currently in the Hennepin County jail on a parole violation.

© 2003 Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.