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9th Circuit: federal drug defendant misled by Miranda translation

While there are plenty of Spanish speakers in California and across the U.S., speaking a foreign language is not necessarily the same as being qualified to translate legal materials. The difference became clear recently when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated one man’s federal drug manufacturing conviction because the officers who interrogated him mistranslated his Miranda warnings in a way that essentially denied him his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel -- in particular, the government’s obligation to provide a criminal defense lawyer at public expense if he could not afford one.

What happened was this. When an officer translated the phrase If you don't have the money to pay for a lawyer...one who is free could be given to you,” he mistranslated the word “free.” He used the word “libre,” which means “free” but in the sense of “available” or “at liberty.” While Spanish varies by dialect, a more common way to express that something is available without cost is “gratis.”

This confused the defendant, who did not understand that an attorney could be provided to him without cost, if he qualified. Nevertheless, he relied on the mistranslated Miranda warning when deciding whether he should accept a plea agreement in which he would plead guilty to conspiracy to manufacture marijuana in exchange for a shorter sentence.

"Such an affirmatively misleading advisory does not satisfy Miranda's strictures," wrote the court. "The phrasing of the warning -- that a lawyer who is free could be appointed --suggests that the right to appointed counsel is contingent on the approval of a request or on the lawyer's availability, rather than the government's absolute obligation."

Prosecutors had argued that the officers had also given the Miranda warnings in English, and that it was more likely than not that the defendant understood those warnings. The court rejected that attempt to save the situation.

Even if the defendant fully understood English, the officers failed to make clear which of the two warnings -- English or Spanish -- was correct. Therefore, even the English version was inadequate. The court reversed his conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court to give the man the opportunity to have a lawyer present when his case is tried again.

Interestingly, there is no official Spanish translation of the famous Miranda warnings. In fact, there is no official English version, either. A number of appellate and Supreme Court cases have ruled on what must be conveyed by the warnings, along with specific details such as what order in which the warnings must be listed. No specific wording is required, which makes it even more difficult to determine the best Spanish translation.

Sources: 

  • Courthouse News Service, “You Have the Right to More Coherent Spanglish,” Tim Hull, July 15, 2013
  • ¡Yo hablo español! "Miranda Warning," David Diego Rodriguez, Ph.D.

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