Winston-Salem Police Department Sued for Disability Discrimination
Blind Man and Guide Dog Forced to Leave Hanes Mall Store or Face Arrest
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Sept. 16, 2021
The Winston–Salem Police Department (WSPD) violated well-established civil rights law when officers ordered a blind man to leave a store at Hanes Mall because of his guide dog, according to a lawsuit filed late yesterday by Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC). During a visit to Hanes Mall in November 2020, a retail store manager sought to have Wilmer Oliva removed because he was accompanied by his guide dog, Forte. Even though mall security agreed that Mr. Oliva had the right to have his guide dog with him, WSPD forced Mr. Oliva to leave the store or face arrest for trespassing.
Mr. Oliva went to the store, Jimmy Jazz, at Hanes Mall the day after Thanksgiving 2020, hoping to take advantage of holiday sales. Instead, WSPD gave him an ultimatum: leave the store with a trespass warning, or be arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail. Fearful and humiliated, Mr. Oliva complied with the officers’ order to leave. The police officers further told Mr. Oliva that police would charge him with trespassing if he ever returned, effectively banning him from shopping at the store.
When DRNC contacted the City of Winston-Salem after the incident, the City defended its actions, and cited a policy of trespassing shoppers based on the demand of a store manager, even if the store’s demands violate the rights of blind shoppers to be accompanied by their guide dogs. Service animals are permitted in public places like malls and retail stores under federal and state law. In fact, North Carolina law makes it a misdemeanor to deny access to someone with a service animal. Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public entities like WSPD to ensure that its policies and practices do not discriminate against people with disabilities who rely on service animals, including guide dogs.
“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. 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,” said Chris Hodgson, lead attorney on the case. “The WSPD should have known better than to forcibly threaten to arrest a blind shopper for simply using their guide dog, as they did to Mr. Oliva.”
Mr. Oliva said he’s now worried the police will arrest or threaten to arrest him when he is with Forte. “I just want to make sure no one with a service animal endures what I did that day. No one with a disability should be treated in such a brutal way. We have a right to be in this world, just like anybody else. Sometimes we just need assistance, like I do with Forte.”
The complaint asks the Court to declare that the WSPD violated Mr. Oliva’s rights, and seeks compensation for Mr. Oliva.
About Disability Rights North Carolina
Disability Rights North Carolina is the federally mandated protection and advocacy system in North Carolina, dedicated to advancing the rights of all people with disabilities, of all ages, statewide. DRNC is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a member of the National Disability Rights Network. Learn more about Disability Rights North Carolina at disabilityrightsnc.org.