Lost in Translation

Judge Steven G. RogersThe gentleman at the podium stood silently as the assistant state attorney announced the plea offer for the man’s criminal charges. I then asked if he wished to accept the plea offer and enter a plea of guilty or no contest to the charges or if he would prefer a jury trial in his case.

There was an awkward silence while the man’s eyes darted between the clerk, bailiff, prosecutor and then to me. The silence was broken when the man softly said, “No hablo Inglés.” I then realized the man had not understood anything that had been said regarding his case.

I’ve previously addressed the importance of those other than lawyers and judges who help our judicial system function efficiently. (See “Supporting Cast” in the May 2016 edition of Ocala Style). In situations such as the one outlined above, there may be no more important person than one of our certified court interpreters.

People appearing in court with limited or no proficiency of the English language have the right to a court appointed interpreter in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Florida Statute §90 .606 (2017), and Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.560 (2017). Sign language interpreters are also provided to those needing their services in accordance with Florida Statute §90 .6063 (2017) and the Americans with Disability Act of 1990.

Although court interpreters may provide assistance in helping people through complex court proceedings, they are not advocates for those needing their services. The interpreters are required to translate exactly what is said in court.

Such was the case several years ago when I presided over a jury trial where the defendant was charged with the misdemeanor offense of operating a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license. The defendant’s attorney presented a unique defense as he argued the defendant possessed an “international driver’s license” that permitted him to drive a vehicle in the state of Florida.

After the defendant testified (with the assistance of a court interpreter) about his international driver’s license in response to the questions asked of him on the direct examination conducted by his attorney, the prosecutor proceeded to ask only three, simple questions on cross-examination:

Q: Mr. Smith, you were driving the truck that evening, weren’t you?

A: Sí, señora. (Yes, ma’am)

Q: And you don’t have a valid Florida driver’s license, do you?

A: No, señora. (No, ma’am)

Q: And you know that an international driver’s license doesn’t allow you to drive in the state of Florida, don’t you?

A: Sí, señora. (Yes, ma’am)

Q: No further questions.

The primary reason the cross-examination was so effective was due to a most ironic set of circumstances—the prosecutor handling the case was of the same nationality as the defendant. After the prosecutor finished her three-question cross-examination, the defense attorney asked for a recess. Shortly thereafter, the defendant entered a plea of guilty to the charge.

During the course of a day, the certified court interpreters may be called upon to handle any number of a variety of court proceedings. From translating the testimony of a witness in a criminal case to translating for one or both of the spouses in a dissolution of marriage case, the need for the services of a translator are required in all types of cases.

When considering the fact most people are in court because something bad is going on in their life, providing competent translation services for those who need them is clearly a value that is not subject to interpretation.

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