When Anne Arundel County took William and Dorothy Herrold to court in a dispute over junk in their yard, the deaf couple knew they would need a sign-language interpreter to help them defend themselves.
Now the county wants the Herrolds to pay for the interpreter, and the Herrolds are fighting back. They want the U.S. District Court to strike down the provision in Maryland law that allows the state to charge deaf people for interpreters in civil cases.
The case has implications for other services the state may now be required to provide to disabled citizens under new federal legislation.
In a suit filed Wednesday with help from the National Association of the Deaf and the National Center for Law and Deafness, the Herrolds say deaf people are discriminated against when they're required to pay for a sign-language interpreter in court proceedings.
"Traditionally, courts in most states have assessed charges, but they may no longer do so under new civil rights laws," said Sarah S. Geer, of the Center for Law and Deafness. "You cannot assess charges for interpreters for people participating in courts just as you cannot charge a person in wheelchairs for the cost of sidewalk ramps".
Ms. Geer said the Americans with Disabilities Act, which went into effect in January, also requires greater access for deaf people who need interpreter services from government agencies and public and private schools.
According to the suit, Maryland law and state court rules now have provisions for deaf defendants in criminal court cases. But those changes have not been implemented for civil matters. The suit says the fee sought from the Herrolds was unfair and violated federal laws.
"Such a policy imposes a surcharge on a deaf person that is not vTC imposed on a hearing person by making a deaf person pay an additional fee to appear before the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County," the suit states.
Named as defendants are County Executive Robert R. Neall, the State of Maryland and Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr., who ordered the couple to pay.
Mr. and Mrs. Herrold, who have been deaf since childhood, were charged by county lawyers in a civil complaint Jan. 31, 1991, with illegally storing unregistered vehicles, vehicle parts, junk and other debris on their property.
On Oct. 30, Judge Duckett issued an order appointing a sign-language interpreter for a court hearing scheduled for Dec. 6.
Jamie B. Baer, assistant county attorney, said yesterday that the hearing never was held because the Herrolds cleaned up their property before the scheduled date. But the interpreter service contacted by officials was not told about the cancellation, and it billed the county $130. The bill was passed on to the Herrolds, Ms. Baer said.
Ms. Baer maintained yesterday that the county was not responsible for paying the interpreter's fee. She said the couple had verbally agreed to make the payment if her office contacted the interpreter.
"We worked with them for hours and hours and bent over backward to make sure they understood what was going on," she said. "I can honestly say I have never spent as much time on a case before."
They say their rights were violated because of the policies of Judge Duckett and Mr. Neall not to pay for an interpreter.
"This practice and policy of requiring a deaf person who is participating in a civil proceeding in the Anne Arundel Circuit Court to provide and pay for sign language interpreter services in order to communicate with the judge of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County and participate meaningfully in a civil proceeding violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment," the suit states.
The couple is seeking a ruling that prohibits state courts from passing on fees for sign-language interpreters. They also are asking for unspecificed damages and an injunction to force Judge Duckett to rescind his order assessing fees against them.