4 Investigates: Disabled war veteran claims his rights were violated at courthouse
March 11, 2019 10:20 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- A decorated war veteran who relies on government-issued hearing aids claims his rights were violated when he tried to enter a local courthouse last month.
Ron Portillo spent a lifetime in the military, serving a total of 24 years combined with the Marines and the Army. His most recent tour overseas was in Fallujah, Iraq in 2007. His team was hit by a roadside bomb. Portillo was the only survivor.
“I was paralyzed for three months. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t speak for a while. I lost peripheral vision in my right eye. I lost my hearing,” Portillo said.
It’s been a long road to recovery. Just a few months ago, the government issued Portillo high-tech hearing aids which are controlled by his smartphone.
“This app is required to control my hearing aids, ambient sound and feedback,” Portillo said.
The new technology is supposed to improve his quality of life. However, it became the center of controversy last month.
Portillo told 4 Investigates that he visited the Bernalillo County District Courthouse to file his last will and testament. When he tried to enter, Portillo said the sheriff’s deputies told him he could not go inside – at least, not with his cell phone.
“I explained to him… I said I need to come in with my cell phone because it controls my hearing aids and this is my equipment for my disability,” Portillo said. “I need this… this is my disability and he goes ‘well you’re not disabled.’"
A letter provided by Portillo’s doctor lays out his dependence on “VA issued hearing aids” that allow for “better communication.”
“By all means, my federal rights were violated,” Portillo said.
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office is the agency in charge of guarding the courthouse.
When questioned about the claim that Portillo’s rights were violated, BCSO Deputy Felicia Maggard said: “To my knowledge this individual was not denied access to our courthouse. He actually did store his cell phone and was able to conduct his business inside the courthouse. So I don’t believe that is true.”
To be clear – Portillo was allowed access to the courthouse but because he couldn’t go inside with his cell phone, he was not able to adjust his hearing aids. Portillo said that’s the real problem.
Deputy Maggard said BCSO’s priority is keeping the courthouse safe, which involves screening more than 50,000 people per month.
“However, in the future, if [Portillo] comes back into the courthouse, we’re happy to make accommodations for him to meet his needs that are reasonable,” Maggard said.
The current court policy prevents members of the public from taking cell phones inside the courthouse. The policy is intended to protect sensitive information such as the identity of jurors and victims.
“The sheriff’s office does not set the rules for what can and cannot be brought into the courthouse. We are here to enforce those rules. These rules are set by the chief judge,” Maggard said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Portillo believes allowing his cell phone through the security checkpoint would have been a reasonable accommodation, especially since attorneys, court staff and members of the media are, in fact, allowed to enter the courthouse with cell phones.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Bernalillo County District Court said the court is “committed to providing services, programs and activities in a way that assures accessibility.” The court also has an ADA coordinator and provides ADA training to court staff.
However, Portillo maintains that his disability should not have been questioned in the first place.
“How many other people with disabilities do they hassle?” Portillo wondered.
Shortly after 4 Investigates started asking questions, Portillo received an email alerting him that court officials are now “taking immediate action" to ensure that they are in full compliance with all of their obligations under the ADA.
For Portillo, it’s a small victory. However, he still wants accountability – especially for the sheriff’s deputy who gave him trouble.
“I’d like a formal apology and I’d like people with disability who go through there and all the other courts treated with respect,” said Portillo.
Updated: March 11, 2019 10:20 PM
Created: March 11, 2019 09:39 PM
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