Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Miranda v. Arizona. The landmark case requires that police officers inform arrestees about certain guaranteed rights: that they have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney (at no cost if they cannot afford to hire one privately).
But what happens if a person being taken into custody doesn’t speak English well enough to understand those rights?
Translation of Miranda Warnings Is Hit-or-Miss
Frequently, officers read translated versions of the prepared “Miranda warnings” speech from cards issued by their departments or printed from the internet. Sometimes, they rely on translation software like Google Translate, on their own foreign language skills (which vary widely), or on others present at the scene of the arrest who seem to have some translation ability.
Spanish is the second most-spoken language in the United States, with more than 45 million residents speaking it as either a first or second language. Law enforcement officers recite the Miranda warnings to individuals in Spanish an estimated 900,000 times a year. Unfortunately, despite the frequency, no single, agreed-on Spanish translation is used.
Because of the wide variance in wording of the translations used by police, defendants may not receive a full and fair recitation of their rights and may not fully understand their rights.
For instance, in a 2013 California case, an officer used the wrong Spanish word for “free” in attempting to tell the suspect, as part of the Miranda warning, that if he could not afford a lawyer one would be provided at no cost. The officer used the word “libre,” which means “available and at liberty” to do something, instead of “gratis,” which means “at no cost.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the incorrect wording improperly “suggests that the right to appointed counsel is contingent on the approval of a request or on the lawyer’s availability" and found that it did not adequately convey to the defendant his rights as required by Miranda. The court suppressed the statements the defendant made after the warnings were given and dismissed his conviction on drug charges.
What Are Your Rights Under Miranda?
Officers must advise you of your Miranda rights if you are placed in “custody,” which means that you are under arrest or are otherwise not free to leave the control of the police. Any time you are in custody, regardless of the nature or severity of the offense you are suspected of or charged with, you are entitled to be reminded of these rights. You must be informed of these rights before you are subjected to an "interrogation,” that is, explicit questions or actions that are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response, by an agent of the state (like a police officer or district attorney).
Although the Supreme Court has held that they do not have to be read in any particular order or using any specific language, it has clearly stated that the warnings must be adequately and fully conveyed so that the defendant understands them. The Supreme Court has likewise held that officers must provide the warning in the arrestee's language or explain them so that people with disabilities or various education levels can understand them. Some jurisdictions provide that a juvenile has the right to remain silent unless their parent or guardian is present.
The U.S. Supreme Court mandates that officers ensure arrestees understand their rights before interrogation. If a defendant presents evidence that he did not understand his or her rights due to translation errors, there may be grounds for dismissal of the charges. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you explore your options if you did not understand your Miranda rights at the time of your arrest.
Moving Forward: Protecting Defendants’ Rights
The American Bar Association (ABA) is scheduled to address this issue at its 2016 annual meeting. An advisory committee investigating the problem cited cases of police using “Spanglish” phrasing or made-up words like “silento” in conveying the Miranda warning. The professional advisory organization hopes to craft and promote a uniform Spanish translation of the warning, which could be adopted by police departments nationwide.
If the ABA is successful in developing a widely-used Spanish translation of the warnings, it hopes to develop additional language translations in the future.
If you’ve been arrested and need an attorney, or if you didn’t understand your Miranda rights at the time of an interrogation, call the Mark Law Firm. Our experienced criminal defense lawyers can help you with any kind of New Jersey criminal law matters, from misdemeanor offenses like jaywalking or traffic violations to felony charges, including drug charges. We’ll help protect your rights through every step of the process. Contact us today!
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