Interpreter General Confusion in Attempted Burglary Hearing Highlights Frequent Mystery of Courtroom Life

By Ella Wade

ALAMEDA, CA – There is a certain formality and ceremony to events and language in court. Entering a courtroom for the first time, proceedings almost appear to be occurring in a different language. Not only is everything formal, but oftentimes attorneys, clerks, and judges can have entire dialogues by listing the numbers and letters of criminal codes, motions, and systems.

To these folks, it’s an everyday thing. To many defendants, it’s a mysterious landscape.

Monday morning, a hearing took place, in Dept. 11 of Alameda County Superior Court at Oakland’s René C. Davidson Courthouse, where An Hoai Nguyen was charged with attempted burglary. This hearing was set for the purposes of “Report and Sentencing.”

The hearing began with the defense attorney, Richard Douglass Foxall, inquiring about the presence of an interpreter for his client, Nguyen.  Judge Kevin Murphy responded, “I am not seeing one, I haven’t seen one all morning.”  

The defense changed their positions because “Mr. Nguyen (was) indicating that he speaks English.” There was an issue with Nguyen’s microphone or the audio in the court, and around a minute was diverted to overcoming technical difficulties. 

Eventually, the court asked, “Mr. Nguyen, do you speak English?” to which Nguyen responded, “Yes, I do,” after a 10-second delay. 

The court asked if the defense would be “comfortable… with proceeding,” citing an earlier interaction between Nguyen and the court in which he had indicated a need for a Vietnamese interpreter.

Due to Mr. Nguyen’s ability to respond to the court’s question, the hearing officially began. The defense began by asking if the court would consider “releasing Mr. Nguyen on his own recognizance, with a directive to report to probation for preparation of the PO report.” 

Deputy District Attorney Veronica Ama Rios Reddick objected, noting previous bench warrants, and stating “this is already a situation where [Nguyen] was released on a Cruz waiver, he failed to appear at probation, failed to appear at RNS, there was no probation report prepared… he has been OR’d three times previously.”

Cruz waivers, sometimes referred to as Vargas waivers, are agreements between the court and an out-of-custody defendant. A Cruz waiver states that the defendant will return to court for their hearing and abide by the law. Violations of a Cruz waiver can result in a harsher sentence, waiving of rights to a plea bargain, or other indicated sentence. 

The court also cited a bench warrant from June 29, from Dept. 702, as well as a bench warrant issued on May 6, out of Dept. 111. 

The court added, “Pretrial services report indicates that he refused or was not able to be interviewed by them… that he was OR’d initially, it looks like way back when  in October of 2020, and after that it looks like there have been a number of bench warrants issued. So I’m going to deny that request.”

The hearing came to a close after the court denied the defense’s request for release. The court decided to extend the matter of probation to a court date on Aug. 30. The defense requested a Vietnamese interpreter be present at all future meetings.

Harkening back to the formalities of the courtroom, this hearing explored an interesting issue that comes up quite frequently. Often times defendants for whom English is a second language can understand and speak English with general ease. Conversational English is an entirely different topic from legal and formal English. 

There are also many defendants for whom English is not a first language, who have trouble understanding charges and issues concerning their lives in court. 

The intellectualized language of the courtroom can cause everything to seem beautifully official and important. But it also can create a divide. In many instances, comprehension of formal legal speech requires higher education or being surrounded by an intellectual environment to become accustomed to formal manners of speech. 

Many of those who are tried for criminal actions have not been in a position during their life to seek higher education. This divide can create strain on the defendants to understand a very crucial and vulnerable moment in their lives. 

About The Author

Ella Wade is a junior at SF Waldorf High School, planning to major in Sociology. She recalls watching an aunt work pro bono protecting low-income houses from construction companies in a SF courtroom. She participates in debates, mock trials, political and journalistic clubs at school and spends her free time reading and hiking.

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