By Angelina Caplanis
FRESNO — If you are a criminal defendant in Fresno county who does not speak English or Spanish, you might not be able to talk to your public defender. Why? The county is not paying for interpreters.
On June 26, 2020, in Department 10 in Fresno County Superior Court, a pre-preliminary hearing was rescheduled because Deputy Public Defender Annie Freitas had not been able to interview her client, Agya Singh, whose primary language is Punjabi.
Punjabi is the most widely spoken language in Pakistan, and is also a popular language in India.
According to the Superior Court of Fresno County’s 2018 Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Plan, Punjabi is one of the top five most frequently used languages in the court’s geographic area.
Freitas explained that COVID-19 has impacted her ability to speak with her client. The Fresno County Public Defender’s office is not using contracted interpreters in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I don’t know when I can have an interview with him because nobody in our office can interpret for me,” Freitas said. “If it were Spanish I could maybe get someone else in the office to interpret.”
Singh had been following the proceedings with the aid of a court certified interpreter. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel ensures that criminal defendants are entitled to interpreters during court proceedings, but that right does not extend out of court.
Deputy District Attorney Nicole Idiart suggested that, after the court’s proceedings ended for the day, Freitas could use the court interpreter to interview her client through Zoom.
Freitas explained that was not possible.
“We’d have to pay. There has to be an expense authorization, and that’s not happening right now,” Freitas said.
In Judge Francine Zepeda’s words, “It’s all about money.”
Singh’s hearing was rescheduled for October 16, with Freitas hoping she would be able to get an interpreter and have a full interview with Singh well before then.
If and when Freitas finds an interpreter, Singh may have to be interviewed over the phone, as defendants are no longer allowed to come to the public defender’s office because of COVID-19.
The recent policies are likely the result of a new outbreak at the Fresno County Jail, although Singh has been out of custody for some time.
Since last Friday, 1,200 inmates in the North Jail in Fresno County have been quarantined and unable to appear in court. The quarantine went into effect after 13 inmates were transferred from Fresno County Jail to Wasco State Prison and tested positive.
A spokesperson from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office announced that 108 inmates have tested positive. On Wednesday, ABC30 learned that three correctional officers have also tested positive. With a population of 2,300, half the inmates at Fresno County Jail remain in lockdown.
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