This past summer, the Morrison County Sheriff's Department and the 7th District Court sent Charles Fiedler letters of apology. The letters stemmed back to a weekend in 2004 when a deputy sheriff arrested Fiedler and transported him to the county jail. It was Fiedler's first arrest. He could not use the telephone to call for help because Fiedler is deaf and has been since birth. Speaking through a sign language interpreter, he recalls his arrival at the jail.
"I didn't understand; it was very confusing. I was telling them that I needed an interpreter. And this is how I was telling them. And they told me at that point, I could read and they gave me a piece of paper," Fiedler says.
Fiedler's primary language is American Sign Language, not English. As a result he says he has difficulty reading and only guesses at the meaning of written words. His hands are his voice. The county never provided a sign language interpreter for Fiedler during his overnight stay in jail nor his first appearance in court the following Monday morning.
The Minnesota Disability Law Center sued the Morrison County Sheriff's Office and the court for violating federal and state laws for not providing Fiedler with an interpreter. Both settled their cases. The terms included the court and the county each sending Fiedler $4,000 and a letter of apology.
Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel disputes Fiedler's statement that he could not read well. Nevertheless, he says finding sign language interpreter at a moment's notice is difficult in rural areas.
"In a perfect world, every county and city would have an interpreter on duty 24/7. But the question we all ask ourselves is do we want our property taxes to go out of reach to fund something that might be needed every three or four years in a small law enforcement agency? Clearly we can't have someone available immediately," Wetzel says.
The courts have state money to pay for interpreters, but jails do not. As part of Fiedler's settlement, Morrison County agreed to set up a new system so that sign language interpreters will be available for a deaf person's initial court hearing. Once a deaf person is in police custody, the jail must now send out an e-mail request to sign language interpreters who have agreed to work with the county.
“Do we want our property taxes to go out of reach to fund something that might be needed every three or four years in a small law enforcement agency?”Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel
Fiedler's case exemplifies the need for sign language interpreters. There are various levels of American Sign Language interpreting. Even the most basic requires years of study and intensive training. There are also specialized interpreters that work in the medical profession or the courts. Currently, there are only five interpreters in the state with a special legal certification.
Katrin Johnson, who coordinates the state's court interpreter program, says the interpreters with legal training not only interpret English to sign language but also legal words and concepts to sign language. They also understand the unique circumstances in working in a legal setting.
"Frequently the people seeking interpreters hope for something more. They look to the interpreters for legal advice, 'should I trust my lawyer, should I take this deal?' They find some camaraderie with that interpreter because it's finally someone they can identify with," says Johnson, who adds the interpreters are not supposed to give legal advice; they are only to interpret.
If one of these five special interpreters is unavailable, the state has a roster of 34 sign language interpreters certified for general settings -- 12 of them joined this past summer after completing a training and testing conference sponsored by the College of St. Catherine's CATIE Center.