COVID-19 Hurts Non-English Speaking Defendants the Most – Here’s Why

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By Elizabeth Cho

SACRAMENTO – In courtrooms, COVID-19 restrictions are still in effect. Everyone is required to wear a mask and to social distance, and many are choosing the option to come to court via Zoom.

While the rise in the use of Zoom has somewhat eased the transition from pre-COVID life to now, this has significantly hurt defendants who do not speak English.

For instance, Chee Saephanh showed up to the Sacramento traffic court, waiting to finally resolve his charge: driving with a suspended or revoked license. And while the US justice system is notorious for being painfully slow, Saephanh has been waiting close to a year to resolve his simple misdemeanor.

And his wait has been only prolonged because of COVID-19. Why? Saephanh can only speak Mien (a language spoken by the Lu Mien people in China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand) and requires the services of an interpreter.

And although Zoom has been a blessing to have during these times, it does not come without its own problems.

Here’s the layout of the Zoom meeting: Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kenneth Brody is calling in from one separate device. Defendant Saephanh is on another. Interpreter Casey Lee is on another. And Deputy District Attorney Sheri Lynn Zamrzla-Greco is on another.

Essentially, there are four different people each calling in on the Zoom meeting. And while this may be a nice way for multiple friends to get together online, it is a poor replacement for a courtroom.

Once the interpreter appeared via Zoom, the difficulties ensued. At first, the defendant had difficulty hearing the interpreter, which led to multiple attempts to raise the volume and bring the speakers closer to him. All of these attempts failed.

It was later revealed that Saephanh refused the services of a public defender because it became too difficult to find someone to translate from Mien to English (and vice versa). And since it was a traffic violation, he figured that it would only take a few months to resolve, at most. But, because he was not able to speak English and with COVID restrictions, this has hurt and prolonged his case.

During the next several minutes, there was a flurry of confusion, with the judge trying to speak to the interpreter, the interpreter trying to speak to the defendant, and so on. It became apparent that Saephanh was becoming frustrated and he simply stated that he was guilty.

But, unfortunately for all of the parties involved, that was not the end of his case.

Judge Brody then came up with a solution for the defendant to directly call the interpreter, which seemed possible at the time. But the defendant did not have his own phone to call the interpreter, which then brought on a search for a phone, taking several more minutes.

After a decent amount of time, Saephanh gained access to a phone and called the interpreter. At this point, Saephanh stated that he “wanted to get this over with” and that he “did not want to have to come back again and again,” which the interpreter was able to hear and translate.

But before Judge Brody could accept Saephanh’s guilty plea, he had to confirm that Saephanh could hear and understand his interpreter. And once again, the online communication made it difficult to do so.

There were multiple lags on the video and audio, which led to more than one person speaking at the same time. Saephanh repeatedly stated that he was guilty and that he was confused about what was going on. The interpreter tried his best to quickly go between Mien and English, but with Saephanh’s frustrated statements and the judge’s questions, it was no easy task.

Again, after several more minutes (and multiple attempts of communication), the judge managed to get the court into order. Judge Brody asked Saephanh if he could communicate with the interpreter (which he said yes to) and proceeded to read him his rights.

And after a prolonged period of frustration and confusion, Saephanh accepted the offer from the DA’s Office and will pay a $250 fine and a penalty assessment (the total being a little over $1000).

If Saephanh could speak English and there were no COVID restrictions, his appearance in court this week would have been under five minutes. Instead, it took close to half an hour

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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