Deaf Woonsocket man arrested for obscene sign language gesture

The Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, along with the Rhode Island Disability Law Center, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Woonsocket Police Department for the arrest of a deaf man.

They claim 25-year-old David Alves of North Smithfield was apprehended and detained for making an obscene sign language gesture.

On July 8 of last year, Alves, who is deaf, was at the City Side Club in Woonsocket with friends, including some who are also deaf or hard of hearing. He had just returned home from summer break at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

There was a verbal altercation inside the club between some in Alves group and the bouncer. The police were called.

Steven Brown, of the ACLU, was approached by Alves to help with the litigation.

“While he was leaving, Mr. Alves gave an American Sign Language sign to the bouncer that was misinterpreted by the police as giving them the finger,” Brown told NBC 10 News. “He said the word bull—- in sign language.”

Brown went on to say that the ordinance he was charged under for violating is “unconstitutional.”

“There’s no right to detain him overnight over such a minor offense,” Brown said. “And that they had certain obligations under the law to provide accommodations to him because of his deafness, and yet those weren’t provided.”

Alves was arrested, and spent the night in jail. The ACLU said his requests for an interpreter were ignored.

A friend went to the department wanting to see Alves, and wrote a note to the officer on duty at the reception desk. The officer wrote him a note back that said in part “these things happen. He just needs to take it as a learning experience.”

“One of the hopes of this lawsuit is that it will make all police departments aware that they do have certain obligations when they are dealing with people like our client,” Brown said.

While NBC 10 reached out to the city of Woonsocket, the media outlet was told there is no comment at this time.

Alves is seeking unspecified monetary damages from the city.

Deaf Woonsocket man arrested for obscene sign language gesture

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