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French citizen jailed for a month, not provided interpreter after refusing to get off plane at CVG Airport

Later involuntarily committed to state hospital
Posted: 4:04 PM, May 10, 2022
Updated: 2022-05-10 19:03:18-04
Fatoumata Camara in a Boone County jail cell Feb. 25 after refusing to go to appear in court for misdemeanor charges

HEBRON, Ky. — A French citizen was jailed in Boone County for nearly a month after she refused to deboard a plane at CVG Airport.

Fatoumata Camara, 34, was on an Alaska Airlines jet scheduled to fly to Seattle, according to airport police records.

Police records show Camara boarded the plane without her boarding pass being approved. Officers repeatedly told her that her boarding pass hadn't been "scanned" at the gate.

"I'm sorry it's my plane," Camara told officers as she pointed at her boarding pass. "They already scanned."

Camara's boarding pass was scanned, but a 'red flag' appeared indicating she hadn't arrived at CVG on her flight from New York. Airport surveillance video shows she was on that flight.

When she declined to leave her seat, four officers carried Camara off the plane and arrested her.

"But I have a ticket," she told the officers right after they handcuffed her. "I don't understand why."

A CVG Airport police officer tries unsuccessfully to convince French citizen Fatoumata Camara to deboard a plane on Feb. 24.
A CVG Airport police officer tries unsuccessfully to convince French citizen Fatoumata Camara to deboard a plane on Feb. 24.

Officers charged her with three misdemeanors: resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and trespassing.

After the WCPO 9 I-Team learned about Camara's case, we requested and received police and jail reports as well as 28 videos documenting her interactions with police, jail corrections officers and Boone County District Court judges.

Video recordings show Camara initially told police she spoke French and could understand English, but the I-Team's review of the videos shows Camara repeatedly misunderstood basic English words, phrases and concepts.

Despite that, a French interpreter is never heard communicating with Camara or on her behalf during any of her recorded conversations with police, corrections officers and at least one judge.

And, there's no record anyone connected to Camara's case — airport police, jail staff, or the public defender's office — contacted the Embassy of France or the Consulate General of France in Chicago, which handles affairs in Kentucky, even though she was a French citizen traveling with a French passport.

The I-Team first notified the Embassy about the incident several weeks ago and provided records from the case as part of our request for comment.

"We are following this very closely," Consulate General Press and Communication Attaché Pascal Thome told the I-Team last week. "We usually do not talk about individual situations."

Jail records identified Camara as a United States citizen.

"We were not given her French Passport and had no documentation stating she was a not a resident of the U.S.," Boone County Capt. Oscar Jeffries wrote in an email response to the I-Team's questions. "We ask the inmates those questions at booking, so she stated she was a U.S. citizen at intake."

The jail's copy of the police citation for her charges includes Camara's passport number, a format that isn't used on U.S. passports.

Camara never identified herself as a U.S. citizen in any recorded interactions with police, corrections officers and judges.

"If you're going to deprive someone of their liberty, they have rights," Cincinnati attorney Joe Dehner said.

Cincinnati Attorney Joe Dehner
Cincinnati Attorney Joe Dehner

Dehner, counsel at Frost, Brown, Todd, is the longtime chair of the law firm’s international practice.

At the I-Team's request, Dehner reviewed video recordings of Camara's interactions with police, corrections officers and judges.

"This poor woman had no idea what was happening to her or what might happen to her," Dehner said. "In a bizarre sense, she would have been much better off if she spoke no English. That's not fair."

The arrest

On Feb. 24 at 6:20 p.m., airport police investigated an Alaska Airlines report that a passenger — later identified as Camara — walked past an airlines employee trying to scan her boarding pass at the gate.

Police records show an Alaska Airlines supervisor tried to stop Camara before she boarded the aircraft, but she got on the plane, took her seat and refused to leave.

Body camera video captured officers questioning why the incident was initially reported as a "breach." Alaska Airlines declined the I-Team's request for comment.

Officers took 10 minutes trying to convince Camara to exit the plane.

Body camera video shows she struggled with officers — allegedly kicking one officer — as they carried her off the aircraft.

"That's the roughest trespass (on a plane) we've ever had," one officer said on body camera video. "I don't get it. Something's not adding up."

Camara sat in a police car next to the plane with her arms handcuffed behind her back for an additional 50 minutes.

Airport spokeswoman Mindy Kershner said officers carry cards showing how to use the airport's language interpreter service that's available by phone. But in that hour with Camara at the airport, officers never offered to include a French interpreter in their discussions with her.

Jail records show the officer who took Camara to jail didn't advise jail staff of any information about her.

An emotional month in jail

Jail records show Camara never made a phone call or visited with anyone from the outside while she was an inmate at the Boone County Jail.

"When Mrs. Camara was initially brought into the jail, she was offered to make a free phone call at intake but refused," Capt. Oscar Jeffries wrote in an email to the I-Team.

A public defender appointed to Camara's case tried to visit her once, but Camara refused to meet with her, according to jail records.

On Feb. 25, the day after the arrest at CVG, jail video shows Camara crying while a corrections officer holds her up against a wall.

Jail staff said Camara had just run out of a room used for virtual court hearings. Her hearing was continued until Feb. 28.

That morning, jail video shows Camara refusing to leave her cell.

"No, I don't want to go court," she said. "No, I didn't do anything."

A corrections officer escorted her down a hallway.

"You don't belong in here," the corrections officer told her. "You're going to see the judge and try to get you out of here so you can get where you're going."

Fatoumata Camara is unresponsive at her court hearing on Feb. 28
Fatoumata Camara is unresponsive at her court hearing on Feb. 28

In her hearing, Camara looked down and refused to speak.

"While you come back as a low-risk on both assessments, there is a flight risk here and also a danger to others," Boone County District Judge Jeff Smith told her.

Judge Smith kept her bond at $500 cash.

On March 1, jail video shows corrections officers rushing to her cell. Jail staff reported that Camara had wrapped her blanket around her next and was trying to harm herself.

They put her in a restraint chair.

"You suicidal?" a corrections officer asked her.

"Never before," Camara said.

Again, she seemed confused.

A few minutes later she asked, "I tried to kill myself?"

"Uh-huh," a corrections officer said.

"No, I just tried to sleep tight," she said. "Please, I'm OK."

Seven minutes later, she was confused about why she was there.

"I'm in the prison, but I don't know why," Camara said. "I tried to take the plane to go to my friend who lives in Seattle for three days. Then, I give my on guarding board to person and I'm going to friend and then police came and bring me back to plane. They say I don't have to take the plane."

After that, Camara told two women corrections officers that she believed she would die in jail.

"Really, you won't die," one corrections officer told her.

"I don't understand," Camara said.

Back to court

On March 3, Camara had another public court hearing on her charges.

The prosecutor and public defender disclosed that Camara could be released that day if she accepted a plea agreement.

"I believe we were concerned about some competency issues, however," Camara's public defender said.

Camara said she wanted to represent herself in court.

"I'm really OK to speak with you if some to ask me," Camara said.

Camara refused to plead guilty and appeared to believe she would be able to testify and present her case that day, but Boone County District Court Judge Marcia Thomas told Camara she would have to wait several weeks for her next hearing.

"I don't want to wait," Camara said. "It's way too long."

After that, Judge Thomas scheduled Camara's trial for March 24.

In that hearing and in other interactions with authorities, attorney Joe Dehner said Camara showed "limited English proficiency."

A Kentucky Supreme Court order requires judges to conduct hearings to determine if individuals have limited English proficiency. If so, courts are required to provide interpreters for their hearings at no cost.

Judge Thomas explained what was happening in court to Camara and the judge appeared to believe that she understood, but court records show there was never a hearing to determine if Camara needed an interpreter.

Both Boone County district court judges declined to comment because Camara’s criminal case is pending.

From the jail to a hospital

On March 9, while she was still on 'suicide watch,' jail video shows corrections officers ordering Camara to step down from atop the toilet in her cell.

She refused. So, corrections officers took her to the floor, then put her in a restraint chair.

This time, her facial expressions and tone of her voice reflected what appeared to be her defiance.

"I need to know that you're not going to stand on the toilet again," a corrections officer told Camara.

"I do not understand your question," she said.

On March 21, after consulting with Camara's public defender and the courts, Boone County Jail Capt. James Wilson filed a petition to have Camara involuntarily committed to a state hospital for up to 60 days.

"She is believed to be a danger to herself," Capt. Wilson wrote. "She will not communicate with the staff of the detention center, her appointed counsel, or the judge, despite the availability of a translator."

Jail records show after a psychiatrist examined her, Judge Smith ordered Camara involuntarily committed to a hospital for up to 60 days.

Two sources familiar with Camara's case said she was discharged from a hospital on April 12. Her next hearing on the criminal charges is scheduled for May 19.

If Camara fails to appear, the judge could issue a warrant for her arrest.