Police officers violated civil rights law when they forced a blind man and his service dog to leave a mall and threatened to arrest him for trespassing if he didn’t, according to a lawsuit filed by a North Carolina advocacy group.
“Civil rights are severely weakened when police departments treat blind shoppers as trespassers based on a store’s discriminatory desire to have them removed for using a guide dog,” said Chris Hodgson, an attorney for Disability Rights North Carolina and lead attorney on the case, in a statement. “When this happens, shoppers are doubly discriminated against, first, by the stores, and then, by the police departments that fail to respect and uphold rights we guarantee to our blind citizenry.”
A spokesperson for the police department declined comment Thursday afternoon, adding that the city would issue a statement.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District by Disability Rights North Carolina says that during a visit to Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem in November 2020, Wilmer Oliva visited a store to take advantage of post-Thanksgiving sales. The store manager tried to have Oliva removed because of his dog, the lawsuit said.
Although mall security officers said Oliva had a right to have the dog inside the store, responding officers with the Winston-Salem Police Department told Oliva he could either leave the store with a warning, or be arrested, handcuffed and charged with trespassing, according to the lawsuit. Oliva told one of the responding officers that requiring him to leave because of his service animal was discrimination, the lawsuit said.
In January, an attorney for Oliva informed the police department of his rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act and asked that the city lift its ongoing threat to arrest him for trespass, the lawsuit said. In March, the city said there was no wrongdoing by police officers and said they appropriately applied trespass rules, according to the lawsuit.
Oliva’s attorney sent a response to the city in late March reiterating its obligation to avoid discrimination regarding service animals, but the lawsuit says the city did not reply.
The lawsuit seeks a jury trial and compensatory damages not specified in the lawsuit.