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Gainesville police never called an interpreter for the questioning and arrest of a deaf man. He was found guilty this week

(Katie Hyson/WUFT News)
(Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

The case highlights gaps in the local legal system to provide equal footing to people who are deaf.

A jury on Tuesday found 24-year-old Quindale Holmes guilty of domestic battery.

The 911 caller told police both parties involved — Holmes and his child’s mother, Jadaisha Ramos — were deaf. But when Gainesville Police Department officers responded to the scene at their apartment on Windmeadows Boulevard in July 2020, they never requested a sign language interpreter.

Holmes and Ramos both testified that communicating with the police that day was difficult and confusing; they felt misunderstood. Holmes testified he didn’t understand his Miranda rights. Despite this, Holmes’ gestures and written statements and Ramos’ spoken words would later be used against Holmes in court.

The state attorney’s office brought the case against Holmes. Ramos didn’t want to pursue charges.

The lack of an interpreter during police questioning was one of the failures in this case to provide people who are deaf with equal footing in the legal system.

Ramos can read lips, though she testified that it can be difficult to communicate, and even more so with strangers. Holmes cannot read lips or speak English. Both use American Sign Language as their primary language.

American Sign Language is a different language than English, with its own grammatical rules. Like any other language, many of its signs don’t have perfect translations into English. Holmes said he sometimes struggles to write in English, and reading is tough. He doesn’t always comprehend and sometimes his statements get misunderstood.

The defense read a letter during sentencing from his pre-K through 5th grade speech language therapist, Lori Lazarus. It said throughout elementary school, Holmes never read past a 2nd grade level.

When officer Andrew Milman entered Holmes’ apartment, he held up a Miranda rights card to him for 18 seconds, pointing to each line. During those seconds, Holmes reached down to check his phone and picked up a dropped pen for Milman.

“Do you understand?” Milman then wrote on a notepad.

Holmes nodded. Later, Holmes testified that nodding in deaf culture acts as an acknowledgment that someone is saying something to you and you are paying attention. The sign for “yes” is a separate gesture, with a different accompanying facial expression.

“I didn’t understand,” Holmes testified. “I wanted someone there to explain what it meant to me.”

By continuing to answer Milman’s questions on the notepad, Holmes waived his Miranda rights.

On the notepad, Milman wrote to Holmes: “Did she hit you or did you hit her?”

Holmes wrote: “Just simple. Like slap.”

“You slapped her little?” Milman wrote.

“When recent it rain outside she try to leave with baby while rain. Then I slap her head back cuz it not right for a baby outside. I try protect my son.”

Holmes later testified that he was trying to explain that he had tapped the back of her head to get her attention as she left the apartment. Because yelling can’t be heard, people who are deaf often use physical touch to alert someone that they want to talk.

The motion to suppress Holmes’ statements to Milman was denied.

In court, the state argued these written statements as admissions of guilt.

Holmes said during this exchange with Milman, he was waiting for his dad to come to explain what was happening to him. But then Milman gestured to Holmes to turn around and handcuffed him. Holmes cried out, trying to verbalize. His only method of communication, his hands, were restrained behind his back. In her letter, Lazarus compared this to gagging a hearing person.

“I was trying to talk but they didn’t understand me,” Holmes testified. “They were ignoring me. The police officer was looking everywhere but me, talking to other people. So, I was frustrated, and I was just angry.” 

Ramos was questioned in a separate location from Holmes. Though Ramos could speak English and officer Desiree Russano testified that she felt able to understand and communicate with her, Ramos testified she didn’t feel able to clearly communicate.

At one point in the body camera footage of Russano’s questioning, Ramos throws her hands up and looks to the ceiling: “It’s hard, because I can’t talk,” she says, then begins taking deep breaths.

Both Holmes and Ramos said they wished they had had someone to explain and interpret.

Milman and Russano both testified that they would have called for an interpreter had either Ramos or Holmes requested one.

When asked why he didn’t request an interpreter, Holmes told the court: “It didn’t matter. It’s his responsibility. He should know. If it’s a deaf person, according to the ADA . . . the police are required to get an interpreter.”

Both Milman and Russano went through police academy training, which includes training on how to respond to incidents involving people who are deaf.

The police department’s accreditation with the American Disabilities Act says the department member making an arrest of a person with a disability “should make every effort to accommodate the special needs of that person, to the extent that time and safety permit.”

“The more lengthy, complex, and important the communication, the more likely it is that a qualified interpreter will be required for effective communication.”

Gainesville Police Department policy also requires officers to have a working knowledge of the U.S. Department of Justice’s guide for contact with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. This document says while a notepad might be sufficient for a simple encounter, such as checking a driver’s license or giving directions, an interpreter will often be necessary for interrogations and arrests.

“You should be careful about misunderstandings in the absence of a qualified interpreter,” the guide says. “A nod of the head may be an attempt to appear cooperative in the midst of misunderstanding, rather than consent or a confession of wrongdoing.”

The accreditation lists two resources that can be contacted to obtain a qualified interpreter: the Alachua County Combined Communications Center and The Center for Independent Living of North Central Florida. Milman called neither.

Instead, he radioed another GPD officer he said has some knowledge of sign language. She is not certified to be a sign language interpreter, and did not respond to Milman until 28 minutes after he had questioned and arrested Holmes.

It’s not the first time Gainesville Police Department responded to a domestic violence call without a qualified interpreter present. In 2018, Spanish speaking officers were sent to a scene, but the parties involved were from Guatemala and only spoke a Mayan language.

The lack of an interpreter is just one of the inequities Holmes faced in this case because of his disability.

During Holmes’ sentencing, the defense said the only reason the case had proceeded to court at all is that the plea deal offered by the state attorney’s office required batterer’s intervention, which is not offered in ASL locally.

Hiring an interpreter to complete the 26-week program, the defense said, would cost roughly $100 an hour out of Holmes’ pocket, in addition to the program fees. Holmes’ successful court application for indigent status lists his take-home pay as $400 weekly.

The judge withheld adjudication, meaning Holmes has not been formally convicted of the battery. He was sentenced to 12 months probation, anger management — which is offered in ASL — and required to make his “best efforts” to obtain an interpreter and complete a batterer’s intervention program.

Lazarus, the speech therapist, recommended the following in her letter:

  • Holmes should have been given an interpreter who understood his level of language comprehension.
  • The authorities should have had an expert who could help them understand Holmes' comprehension level in the body camera footage of his questioning and subsequent arrest.
  • The police should be required to take deaf awareness classes to prevent future situations like this one.

The state attorney’s office is also pursuing a battery case against Ramos. A hearing in that case has not yet been scheduled.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.