Criminal Defense of Immigrants


§ 4.36 (E)

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(E)  Statutory Rights to an Interpreter.  Congress, as well as the legislatures of many states, have enacted legislation implementing the constitutional right to an interpreter in criminal proceedings. 


                (1)  Federal Legislation.  The right to an interpreter in federal courts was extended to all criminal proceedings through the passage of the Federal Court Interpreters Act. [146]  As amended in 1988, this Act mandates the use of certified or otherwise qualified interpreters in all criminal proceedings for people who primarily speak a language other than English, and it explicitly provides for whom that right is accorded, and how that right should be recognized. 


                The requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 1827(d)(1) , the federal Court Interpreters Act, are satisfied in a criminal case if an interpreter is by the defendant’s side “continuously interpreting the proceeding.”[147]


                Kay, Ramirez and Hill have explained: [148]


The central purpose of the Act is “to ensure that a defendant has comprehension of the proceedings and can effectively communicate with counsel.”[149]  The Act imposes a duty on a court to inquire into the need for an interpreter when a defendant or witness has difficulty with English.[150]  After inquiry, a court must appoint an interpreter for a defendant or witness if it determines that the defendant (1) speaks only or primarily a language other than the English language; or (2) suffers from a hearing impairment (whether or not suffering also from a speech impediment) so as to inhibit such party’s comprehension of the proceedings or communication with counsel or the presiding judicial officer, or so as to inhibit such witness’ comprehension of questions and the presentation of such testimony.[151]


Under the Act, therefore, a court must appoint an interpreter if language or hearing difficulties “inhibit” the communication of a witness or defendant;[152] a court need not appoint an interpreter if a witness or defendant speaks English as well as another language.[153] If a defendant or witness requires an interpreter, the interpreter must “continuously interpret the proceedings.”[154] The Act requires the court to appoint a certified interpreter if one is available, or an “otherwise qualified” interpreter if one is not.[155] A defendant, but not a witness, may waive interpretation under the Act if the waiver is approved by the court and made expressly by the defendant on the record after opportunity to consult with counsel after the court has explained, through an interpreter, the nature and effect of a waiver.[156] 


                (2)  State Legislation.  Several states have enacted similar statutes (13 at the end of 1996), [157] and even state constitutional amendments[158] mandating the appointment of court interpreters for limited- and non-English speaking defendants in criminal cases. The federal Act does not require the states to provide interpreters in state courts.[159]  Some state statutes even provide for appointment of an interpreter before a defendant or suspect is interrogated[160] and during grand jury proceedings.[161]


                Some state statutes on interpreters also have provisions requiring that a defendant’s waiver of this right be voluntarily and intelligently made.[162]


[146] Court Interpreters Act of 1978, Pub. L. No. 95-539, 92 Stat. 2040 (1978) (codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1827); see United States v. Joshi, 896 F.2d 1303, 1309 (11th Cir. 1990) (explaining that the Act does not expand existing constitutional safeguards); Hrubec v. United States, 734 F. Supp. 60, 67 (E.D.N.Y. 1990) (stating that 28 U.S.C. § 1827 codifies Negron).

[147] United States v. Lim, 794 F.2d 469, 471 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 937 (1986), quoting United States v. Tapia, 631 F.2d 1207, 1209 (5th Cir. 1980).

[148] Kay, Ramirez & Hill, Using Interpreters, in J. Connell & R. Valladares, eds., Cultural Issues in Criminal Defense 2-1, 2-17 to 2-18 (Juris Publishing 2000). 

[149] United States v. Paz, 981 F.2d 199, 200 (5th Cir. 1992); see also United States v. Huang, 960 F.2d 1128, 1135 (2d Cir. 1992); United States v. Sanchez, 928 F.2d 1450, 1455 (6th Cir. 1991).

[150] See Valladares v. United States, 871 F.2d 1564, 1565 (11th Cir. 1989); United States v. Tapia, 631 F.2d 1207, 1209 (5th Cir. 1980).

[151] 28 U.S.C. § 1827(d).

[152] See Gonzalez v. United States, 33 F.3d 1047, 1050 (9th Cir. 1994); United States v. Perez, 918 F.2d 488, 490 (5th Cir. 1990); United States v. Villegas, 899 F.2d 1324, 1348 (2d Cir. 1990); United States v. Jong Moon Lim, 794 F.2d 469, 470 (9th Cir. 1986) (per curiam).

[153] See United States v. Arthurs, 73 F.3d 444, 447 (1st Cir. 1996); Gonzalez, 33 F.3d at 1050-51; United States v. Markarian, 967 F.2d 1098, 1104 (6th Cir. 1992); United States v. Bigman, 906 F.2d 392, 394 n.1 (9th Cir. 1990); Hrubec v. United States, 734 F. Supp. 60, 67 (E.D.N.Y. 1990).

[154] Tapia, 631 F.2d at 1209; see also United States v. Huang, 960 F.2d 1128, 1135 (2d Cir. 1992); United States v. Gomez, 908 F.2d 809, 811(11th Cir. 1990); United States v. Joshi, 896 F.2d 1303, 1309 (11th Cir. 1990); Jong Moon Lim, 794 F.2d at 470 (quoting Tapia, 631 F.2d at 1209); United States v. Urena, 834 F. Supp. 1282, 1286 (D. Kan. 1993).

[155] See 28 U.S.C. § 1827(d); United States v. Paz, 981 F.2d 199, 200 (5th Cir. 1992).

[156] See 28 U.S.C. § 1827(f); United States v. Sun Myung Moon, 718 F.2d 1210, 1231 (2d Cir. 1983) (holding that if defendant chooses to testify, he or she must do so through court-appointed interpreter); Tapia, 631 F.2d at 1209 (explaining that the waiver must be made by the defendant, rather than by the court or by counsel). But see United States v. Petrosian, 126 F.3d 1232, 1234-35 (9th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 119 S.Ct. 1512 (1999) (holding that a court may require a defendant to testify through an interpreter).

[157] See, e.g., D.C. Code § 31-2701-12; Policies for Interpreted Proceedings in the Courts of the State of Hawaii 1(A); Minn. Stat. § 611.32(1); N.M. Stat. Ann. § 38-10-3(A); Or. Rev. Stat. § 45.275(l); Utah Code of Judicial Administration, Rule 3306, Virginia Criminal Code, Chap 402, § 19.2-164; Washington Code, Chap 2.43.

[158] See, e.g., California State Constitution, Article 1, § 4; New Mexico State Constitution, Article 11, § 14.

[159] See Costa v. Williams, 830 F. Supp. 223, 225 (S.D.N.Y. 1993); State v. Gongora. 866 S.W.2d 172, 174 (Mo. Ct. App. 1993). But cf. State v. Rodriguez, 682 A.2d 764, 768 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1996) (citing Act as a guide to exercise of discretion).

[160] See Minn. Stat. § 611.32(2). For similar statutes governing interrogation of a deaf suspect, see Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 12-242; Cal. Evid. Code § 754; Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-33; Iowa Code § 804.31; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 221, § 92A; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8B-2(d); Or. Rev. Stat. § 133.515.

[161] See Minn. Stat. § 611.32(1); Mo. Rev. Stat. § 540.150; Or. Rev. Stat. 132.090(2); cf People v. Rodriguez, 546 N.Y.S.2d 769, 775 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1989) (dismissing indictment for poor sign language interpretation during grand jury proceedings).

[162] See, e.g., Wash. Rev. Code. § 2.43.060 (1989); Wis. Stat. § 885.38 (2001).