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June 17, 2004

Court upholds claim that police violated rights of deaf NH man

From: Brattleboro Reformer, VT - Jun 17, 2004

By JUSTIN MASON Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- A deaf New Hampshire man, who successfully argued that police violated his rights as a disabled person, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in Windham District Court Wednesday.

Eric S. Putnam, 26, of Alstead, N.H., was set to stand trial this week for the charge of driving under the influence and possession of marijuana, both misdemeanor offenses, when he entered into a plea agreement with Deputy State's Attorney Nat Seely.

As a result of the agreement, Judge John P. Wesley ordered Putnam to pay a $520 fine for possessing marijuana and dropped the drunken driving charge against him.

Discrepancies in Putnam's case started almost immediately, beginning with his arrest and running through the subsequent court proceedings, which needed to be arranged in tandem with four sign language interpreters.

According to court documents, the Bellows Falls Police originally took Putnam into custody in November 2002, while investigating a possible break-in on Rockingham Street. Officer Jennifer Carroll said she saw Putnam sitting in his car across the street with its engine running.

Investigators began to suspect that Putnam was drunk following several unsuccessful attempts to rouse him, Carroll stated in her affidavit. During the ensuing investigation, Putnam informed police that he was deaf, but he could read lips.

After failing field sobriety tests, Putnam was brought to the station for DUI processing, where officers attempted to issue him his Miranda warning by scrolling notes on a pad of paper.

Following Putnam's arraignment, Public Defender Joanne Balz filed a motion to suppress evidence, arguing that any statements made by Putnam while he was in police custody were inadmissible in court. Due to his disability, she said Putnam was unable to fully understand his rights as communicated by police.

"A series of notes were used by one of the officers who indicated that, at some point, the defendant expressed that he did not understand," she stated in the motion.

Asking for the court to deny the motion, Seely stated that police had been more than accommodating with regards to Putnam's disability. Seely also argued that there was no authority to support the contention that the Americans with Disabilities Act required sign language interpreters to be present for the purpose of issuing Miranda warnings.

"At no time did the defendant indicate that he was unable to read," he stated. "In fact, he made it explicitly clear to the officer that he understood what was happening to him and that he was fully aware of his rights."

Prior to the court's ruling on the motion, Balz filed a supplemental memorandum of law, further stating that Putnam had tried to remain silent during questioning, but was coerced into making statements through miscommunication. Balz also noted that police had made no effort to find an interpreter prior to questioning Putnam and had even neglected to use a text teletype machine that was available at the department.

"Police are required now to 'effectively inform' accused people of their constitutional rights before any questioning can take place," she stated. "Without a qualified interpreter, deaf people are not able to fully understand these rights and any waiver of them would not meet the court's standard of being voluntary, knowing and intelligent."

During a lengthy hearing in November 2003, Wesley ruled in favor of the motion, which, among other things, suppressed the evidentiary breath test Putnam submitted during questioning.

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