Maryland has one of the largest deaf and hard of hearing populations in the world.[1] In spite of this, the deaf community still represents a minority of individuals and an even smaller minority within the courtroom.[2] As such, many judges and attorneys do not come across them in their line of work often, and because of this, are unfamiliar with legal issues that may arise.[3] Such legal issues may include cases that are unnecessarily lost which can result in jail or prison time for innocent deaf inmates.[4] Therefore, this blog serves to inform and bridge the gap between legal professionals and deaf inmates to lessen the chances of negative impacts on this population.

At a basic level, here are some guidelines that will be fundamental to attorneys in Maryland who represent individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing: 1) obtain valid data on the educational and linguistic level of the client –specifically, the reading level as this information will be pertinent to demonstrating linguistic competence, or incompetence, of the defendant to be tried[5]; 2) obtain data on exactly how your client was Mirandized[6] –this is especially imperative because most officers do not properly administer the Fifth Amendment adequately as they often fail to provide a certified and qualified interpreter. Reading the Miranda warnings is not sufficient as English has a different grammar and syntax than American Sign Language and is often misunderstood. In fact, the Miranda warnings are only “given correctly and fairly about 30 percent of the time. ”[7] This process should be videotaped and recorded as it is the sole way of obtaining an exact record when sign language is involved;[8] 3) during trials, interrogations, and other legally-related affairs involving the deaf client, a certified interpreter should be present and the interpreter should be made available to the defense lawyer as well –this will ensure that the deaf client and all attorneys present can interact and communicate seamlessly;[9] 4) if a deaf or hard of hearing defendant prefers closed-captioning, rather than a sign language interpreter, the request should be made by the attorney[10]; and 5) if interrogations or arrests were actually videotaped at the time, copies of each should be obtained and evaluated by the attorney along with the aid of a sign language interpreter;[11] moreover, all legal documents the deaf client was ordered to sign should be obtained and examined as well.[12]

Because of the complex nature of handling cases with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, it is important to be vigilant to certain issues that may arise.[13] This short list of guidelines serves to aid Maryland attorneys who come into contact with individuals in the deaf community to bridge the gap and provide the adequate representation that this community deserves just as all other individuals of varying backgrounds.

    1. Andrews, Vernon, Lavinge, Basic Legal Issues in Handling Cases of Defendants Who Are Deaf, American Annals of the Deaf, 1-21 2010.
    2. Id.
    3. Id.
    4. Id.
    5. Id.
    6. Andrews, at 15.
    7. Vernon, M. & Raifman, The Miranda Warnings and the Deaf Suspect. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, L.J. 14(1) 121-135, (1996).
    8. Id.
    9. Vernon, M. & Miller, K.R. Linguistic incompetence to stand trial: A unique condition in some deaf defendants, Journal of Interpreting, Millenial Edition, pp. 99-120, (2001).
    10. Id.
    11. Andrews, Vernon, Lavinge, Basic Legal Issues in Handling Cases of Defendants Who Are Deaf, American Annals of the Deaf, at 5.
    12. Id.
    13. Id.

    Adriana Featherstone is a 3rd year law student, second-year staff editor on Law Forum, and Sign Language Interpreter. The subject of her blog post was inspired by her dual interests in the criminal and civil aspects of law as it relates to the deaf community, as well as the work she encountered during her tenure at the Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Upon graduation, she aspires to continue pursuing a career that combines both worlds of deaf studies and the law. Her linkedin profile can be found here.


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