Criminal Defense of Immigrants


§ 4.17 (A)

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(A)  In-Person Interpretation.  If there is a certification process in place in the jurisdiction, counsel can quickly obtain a list of certified interpreters who meet some threshold standards from the organization responsible for certifying interpreters.  Each United States District Court maintains its own list of certified and “otherwise qualified” interpreters and must arrange for interpreters to attend court appearances.  The court does not, however, supply interpreters outside of court for office or in-custody interviews or investigation.  If the case is in the federal appellate courts, counsel must usually hire one’s own interpreter for in-custody interviews or investigation with non-English-speaking parties or witnesses.  In court-appointed cases, local federal or state public defender’s office or the court can inform counsel of the procedures necessary to obtain and compensate an interpreter.  As counsel becomes familiar with the interpreters in the area, s/he will become familiar with their strengths and weaknesses.


Counsel may have to go out of state to find interpreters for less common languages or dialects.  Counsel should verify that the interpreter s/he selects speaks the same language or dialect as the defendant or witness, and not merely a similar one.[47] 

Counsel should never use as an interpreter a family members or friend of the client, much less a codefendant or victim.[48]  Family members or friends may not be able to provide detached and accurate interpretation.  The interpreter should be a neutral professional who merely enables communication between the attorney and the client.  See § 4.23, infra.

[47] See United States v. Mosquera, 816 F. Supp. 168, 175 (E.D.N.Y. 1993) (Weinstein, J.) (noting the variety of Chinese dialects and differences in Spanish pronunciation and vocabulary); State v. Rodriguez, 682 A.2d 764, 769 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1996) (“[A]n interpreter who merely speaks a similar language (i.e., Portuguese for Spanish) will not suffice.”); In re Luz P., 595 N.Y.S.2d 541, 543-44 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993) (“When dealing with foreign languages, there are differences in dialects that could render translations unreliable or even unintelligi­ble.”).  But see, e.g., Cazanas v. State, 508 S.E.2d 412, 414 (Ga. 1998) (holding that differences between Cuban and Mexican Spanish did not prevent knowing plea of guilty).

[48] See, e.g., Henry v. State, 462 S.E.2d 737, 743 (Ga. 1995); In re R.R., 398 A.2d 76, 86 (N.J. 1979); In re James L., 532 N.Y.S.2d 941, 942 (N.Y. App. Div. 1988); State v. McClellan, 286 S.E.2d 873, 875 (N.C. App. 1982); State v. Fleck Van Tran, 864 S.W.2d 465, 476 (Tenn. 1993). Unfortunately, this rule is most often honored in the breach.  See, e.g., Henry, 462 S.E.2d at 743 (allowing friend of complaining witness to interpret for complaining witness); Kitchens v. State, 401 S.E.2d 552, 553-54 (Ga. Ct. App. 1991) (allowing daughter of complaining witness to act as interpreter); R.R., 398 A.2d at 86 (allowing mother to interpret four-year-old’s idiosyncratic speech and gestures); McClellan, 286 S.E.2d at 875 (allowing half-sister to interpret for witness with speech impediment); Heck Van Tran, 864 S.W.2d at 475-76 (allowing grandson of complaining witness to interpret her testimony). But see, e.g., In re James L., 532 N.Y.S.2d at 942 (holding that trial court erred by appointing son of complaining witness as interpreter without attempting to locate disinterested interpreter).