Idaho: Language barrier can hinder the legal process

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jul 8 16:11:37 UTC 2008

Language barrier can hinder the legal process
Many Valley law enforcement officials are bilingual, but court
officials say having certified interpreters is the only way to
guarantee due process

Chris Butler/Idaho Statesman

BY BETHANN STEWART - bstewart at
Edition Date: 07/07/08

The recent case of Jos Lopez Meza appears to be an anomaly, but it
raises the question of whether non-English speakers who are accused of
crimes are being understood.

Meza faced a possible death penalty in connection with his infant
son's death. But one of the reasons he may only serve three to 15
years on a manslaughter charge is that court-certified interpreters
found that parts of his interview with Nampa police had been

"When an individual is missing a word, it's not just a word. It's
something that will make or break your case," said Estella Zamora,
interpreter coordinator for Canyon County who headed the effort to
transcribe the hours-long video and audio tapes of Meza's interview
with police.

Meza is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 5.

While the courts have procedures in place to ensure the accuracy of
proceedings that involve non-English speakers, law enforcement
agencies do not have policies that guarantee the correctness of what
is said during investigations, before a suspect appears in court.

That lack of accuracy may make it more difficult to prosecute
criminals, but it also may make it more difficult for innocent people
who don't speak English to get a fair trial.


The U.S. Constitution challenges law enforcement agencies and the
courts to make sure that people know their rights, the charges against
them and that they have the right to defend themselves, regardless of
what language they speak.

"The right to due process is involved whenever the state is involved
in anything," said attorney Ritchie Eppink.

Both arms of the state meet that challenge in different ways.

Law enforcement officials say having bilingual staff members meets
their need to communicate with non-English speakers.

"If they're bilingual, they're bilingual," said Nampa Police Chief
Bill Augsburger.

But court interpreters say there's a difference between being
bilingual and being a trained interpreter.

According to Canyon and Ada county court officials, the only way to
guarantee the due process of law is for law enforcement agents to use
court-certified interpreters.


The Nampa Police Department has 20 bilingual-Spanish officers out of
120 sworn officers, Augsburger said.

In order for officers to be considered bilingual, they must
successfully handle a scenario described to them by an officer known
to be bilingual, he said.

But the scheduling policy does not guarantee that a bilingual officer
will be working on every shift.

"We bid shifts based on seniority," Augsburger said. "Sometimes there
are two Spanish speakers on one shift, and none on others."

The Canyon County Sheriff's Office has about 10 bilingual deputies,
Sheriff Chris Smith said.

"If we don't have one on duty, someone between Nampa and Caldwell
will," he said.

There are several bilingual deputies at the jail, and the shifts are
set up so one is on duty at all times, Smith said.

"Over the years, we've probably encountered more people in the past
who didn't speak English," he added.

The Boise Police Department has 35 bilingual officers out of 297 sworn
officers, not including airport officers.

About half of them speak Spanish, according to Boise police
spokeswoman Lynn Hightower, and the rest speak various languages,
including sign language, Tagalog, Vietnamese, German, Japanese and

"Per contract, Boise Police Department does not compensate officers
with additional salary for speaking a second language," Hightower said
in an e-mail. "So contractually, BPD cannot use language as a
consideration for scheduling."

Typically, there are enough Spanish speakers so that at least one or
two are working within the city, Hightower said, and officers
cooperate with deputies from the sheriff's office as well as Garden
City and Meridian police, if needed.

Ada County sheriff's deputies aren't paid more for being bilingual,
either, said spokeswoman Andrea Dearden.

Nor are they tested on their bilingual skills.

"It's something where they say, 'Yes, I can do that,' " Dearden said.

Patrol deputies who come into contact with a non-English speaker have
a list of interpreters they can call, Dearden said.

Ada County dispatchers use the same list, said Ada County dispatch
supervisor Lori Bragg. Dispatch does have a couple of Spanish speakers
on staff, she said, but "for 9-1-1 calls, we use a national language
line. For non-emergency calls, we usually have them call back on

The language line gives callers access to live interpreters 24/7.
Agencies are charged by the language and the length of the call, Bragg

Canyon County dispatch also uses a language line, Sheriff Chris Smith said.


Sometimes, contact with law enforcement agents leads to court
appearances. That's where trained interpreters come in.

"What people don't understand is we can all be bilingual, but you have
to know what you're doing if you're going to interpret," Zamora said.
"It's not just the repetition of words."

Zamora has worked as a court interpreter in Canyon County for more
than 23 years. Part of her job as interpreter coordinator is to make
sure there is an interpreter at every proceeding in which one is

In Canyon County, the demand for interpreters of sign language,
Laotian, Russian and Romanian is up, she said.

After spending weeks poring over the transcripts of Meza's interview
with police, Zamora said she would like to see police do things
differently next time.

"My recommendation is if they have a violent case - a rape, murder, a
high-profile case - get an interpreter who knows what they're doing,"
she said.

Sandra Barrios, interpreter coordinator for the Ada County Courthouse,
agreed with Zamora. She said she was surprised there haven't been more
cases like Meza's.

"Spanish is spoken in 43 countries in the world," Barrios said. "The
Spanish in Mexico is not the same as Argentina, and interpreters know
the difference."

For example, the word for bus in Chile means stroller in Venezuela, she said.

And Ada County courts see more than just Spanish speakers. For
example, Boise has three refugee resettlement centers. From 2004 to
2007, 43 different languages were spoken in Ada County courts, Barrios

"By administrative rule, we provide interpreters for civil and
criminal cases in Idaho," Barrios said. "Not all states do that."

The most unfamiliar language Barrios had to find an interpreter for
was Cebuano, a language spoken in the Philippines. She found an
interpreter for that case in Hawaii.

"We have to fly in a lot of people for trials," she said.

The Idaho Supreme Court requires that all efforts be made to appoint
certified interpreters for court proceedings that require one.

Idaho offers court interpreter certification exams in Arabic, Korean,
Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Laotian, Somali, Hatian-Creole, Spanish,
Hmong, Portuguese and Vietnamese.

But the passing rate nationwide for certification exams is only 14
percent, according to Janica Bisharat, program manager of the Idaho
court interpreter training and certification program.

For example, no one in Idaho has passed the exam in Russian, yet.

"It's a rigorous exam, as it should be," Bisharat said. "People's
lives and due process are at stake."

Bethann Stewart: 377-6393

It is a policy of the Idaho Supreme Court to "secure the rights,
constitutional or otherwise, of persons who, because of a
non-English-speaking cultural background or physical impairment, are
unable to understand or communicate adequately in the English language
when they appear in the courts or are involved in court proceedings."

Idaho Court Administrative Rule 52 says that for any court proceeding
where an interpreter is required, the court must appoint interpreters
according to their level of certification: first a certified
interpreter, then a conditionally-approved interpreter, and lastly a
qualified interpreter:

A certified interpreter has passed all sections of Idaho's
certification exam or its equivalent.

A conditionally-approved interpreter has passed the written screening
exam and has attended an orientation workshop.

A qualified interpreter is able to interpret or sign-translate from
English to the language of the non-English-speaking person or from
that language into English, and agrees to follow the standards of the
Idaho Supreme Court.

Source: Idaho Supreme Court

Applicants take a basic written screening exam in English and a
proficiency exam in the target language.

Eligible applicants then sit for three oral exams and must pass with
70 percent or higher.

In Idaho, the test is offered once a year in Boise, in phases. Some
scholarships are available.

It is the policy of the National Consortium for State Court
Interpreters, of which Idaho is a member, that applicants can only
take the exam twice.

For Spanish, there are four versions of the exam, so applicants can
take the exams a total of eight times. It's not the same for other

Source: Idaho Supreme Court
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