By Linhchi Nguyen
SACRAMENTO – A defense attorney here insisted on postponing his non-English speaking client’s court hearing after Zoom live stream issues and interpreter snafus ground the court to a halt.
Due to COVID-19, the convenience of conducting hearings with everyone in the courtroom is put on hold. Instead, many hearings now consist of the judge, attorneys, and witnesses having to communicate virtually through Zoom as they sit in separate locations.
While this process has proved to be fine in some cases, Defense Attorney Justin Mixon and his non-English-speaking defendant, Ricardo Perez-Jacome, encountered some unexpected difficulties last Thursday in Sacramento County Superior Court.
Right off the bat, the defendant had trouble with downloading the Zoom app. Attorney Mixon attempted to communicate with his client through text, but Perez does not understand English. Mixon then requested if he could borrow a Spanish interpreter for “a minute or two” to help Perez with the process.
Unfortunately, Judge Helena R. Gweon realized that there wasn’t an interpreter available in the Zoom waiting room, to which Mixon said, “That’s a huge problem.”
“We’ll call the interpreter office and see… if one is forthcoming,” Judge Gweon replied as the court quickly searched for a last-minute Spanish interpreter for the defendant.
A long, silent wait passed by until a man in a suit appeared through a Zoom screen, sitting inside the courtroom.
The judge then proceeded with the hearing in which the Spanish interpreter now had to translate, consecutively, to the defendant through the phone, but Perez didn’t seem to ever figure out how to open Zoom and remained only available through the phone with the interpreter.
As a result, there appeared to be a disconnect as the defendant couldn’t witness what was going in the Zoom meeting, and the defense attorney couldn’t see what was going on with his client.
Furthermore, a disruptive ringing sound pierced through the air in the middle of the hearing, cutting off the prosecutor from speaking. The ringing proceeded for a few more seconds as the judge attempted to figure out where the sound was coming from.
Finally, Mixon, aware of the complications, spoke up, “Your Honor, can I object? This seems like it’s going to be pretty difficult. I would probably prefer to do it in person.”
Judge Gweon admitted that she would feel more comfortable if the defendant were at least in the video “to ask if he was having any issues of right to come front because he is not seeing the witness.”
She noted that usually the remote appearances go without any issues “and especially when the interpreter can appear…to interpret concurrently.”
Not willing to risk any drawbacks from the current virtual process, Mixon insisted that he still preferred to meet with both his client and interpreter in person. He emphasized that, when moving the date, he needs to make sure his client is available to be present in the courtroom.
Finally, after consulting with the prosecutor and her witness, the judge agreed to push back the hearing.
Despite having to awkwardly halt the hearing this time, Mixon no doubt is looking forward to better accommodate his client, defendant Perez, next time.
But the experience indicates that there are still difficulties with virtual court hearings, although they have been used very efficiently for the past few months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back up interpreters may also be a good idea.
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