Interpreters for Non-English Speaking Defendants Exposes Toll of Language Barriers in Court Proceedings


By Fiona Davis

SACRAMENTO, CA – On a particularly busy day here in Sacramento County Superior Court this week, several non-English defendants stood out, as the presence of barriers in communication caused delays in their court proceedings.

On Wednesday, Judge Timothy Frawley kept a clipped pace as he oversaw numerous cases that morning. With 152 cases listed on his department’s calendar for the day, Judge Frawley commented several times on the extent to which the court’s schedule was extensively filled, both on that day and in the days that would follow.

“Ugh, they’re bad.” He stated emphatically when Colin Stephenson – representing the DA’s office throughout the morning – proposed two different dates to schedule a particular follow-up hearing.

As a result, the impact of the court’s schedule and swift pace of its proceedings made any delays or missteps within the court process stand out.

Specifically, when several defendants required the assistance of a language interpreter, delays and problems that resulted from an inability to communicate were displayed clearly against the backdrop of Judge Frawley’s packed schedule.

Santiago Rojas-Martinez, charged with burglary and grand theft, attended and listened to his case’s proceedings with the aid of a Spanish court interpreter.

While a settlement conference was scheduled to occur that morning, Rojas-Martinez’s defense attorney, David Brooks, stated that he had been unable to communicate with his client enough to proceed with the scheduled settlement.

Brooks, who attended court remotely, cited the presence of a language barrier as the primary reason for this disconnection between him and Rojas-Martinez.

Although the prosecution had provided a misdemeanor settlement deal that would “likely settle the case,” Brooks was not able to convey the proposed settlement to the defendant. While the defense planned to use a language interpreter to facilitate this needed conversation, Rojas-Martinez had not given his attorney a “good number” to contact him.

For this reason, Brooks spent the majority of the time in court attempting to communicate, both to the defendant and Judge Frawley, the need to resolve the issue, stating his office number and email address and asking Rojas-Martinez to contact him.

As the defense was unable to physically give his client his written contact information, and the defendant was not prepared to write the information down, Rojas-Martinez only listened to this information relayed by the interpreter.

Beyond delaying the resolution hearing – which was rescheduled more than two months past its initial date – the language barrier also places the defendant at risk for being placed back into custody.

“Madam Interpreter, can you tell him he needs to call his attorney? Otherwise, he might not be staying out of custody,” The court clerk stated, before Rojas-Martinez left the court.

A separate case that day resulted in similar delays. Lurii Sobaev is accused of “willfully and lewdly commit[ting] lewd or lascivious act[s]” towards a minor and possessing child pornography, and was scheduled to be sentenced, pleading no contest to a separate misdemeanor charge.

However, when he was initially brought into court from custody, the court realized that he would need a Russian interpreter.

Because the need for interpretation had not been previously noted, Sobaev’s hearing was significantly delayed.

More than an hour later, when a Russian interpreter had eventually been contacted and was present, the hearing was further delayed when the defendant’s attorney realized she had not been provided with the probation report.

While Judge Frawley attempted to place Sobaev’s sentencing in the afternoon, despite his caseload being “huge,” the court clerk explained that the court’s holding area might not be able to accommodate him that afternoon.

“They’ll see if it’s possible,” she told the judge.

Proceedings for Rojas-Martinez are scheduled to continue Sept. 22. The date for Sobaev’s sentencing hearing is unknown at this time.

These two cases, connected by the problems that arise from the presence of barriers in language, brings to light a broader conversation regarding language accommodations with the legal system. While the United States might be primarily viewed as an English-speaking country, there is a significant need for English-interpretation services.

In California specifically, seven million residents say they cannot speak English well, and 44 percent of Californians speak a language other than English at home.

In the state court system specifically, as part of the California Constitution, any defendant, victim, or witness, unable to understand or speak English has the right to be provided with an interpreter through the proceedings.

However, while the state has showcased plans to provide all non-English speakers with interpretation across all types of cases, experts within the court system have expressed doubts and concerns with the system as it currently stands.

Some of this concern derives from the size of the state’s court system in combination, as California stands as the largest in the nation, processing up to eight million cases in a year.

As Justice Terence L. Bruiniers, of the 1st District Court of Appeal, stated to PBS, “The reality is we are never going to have enough qualified interpreters in enough languages for every courtroom that needs them at the time they need them … That is just not going to be possible.”

Another issue comes with the high-level of knowledge required to work as a legal interpreter. Beyond fluency in the language, an individual certified in this profession is often required to hold an understanding of technical legal language, and may be asked to translate both sides in real time.

As of 2017, California holds an estimated 2,000 qualified court interpreters.

Perhaps most importantly, beyond the size of the court system, or the skills required to become one, non-English defendants are forced to face an additional barrier in a system that many already find difficult to navigate, as demonstrated by the defendants in these hearings.


About The Author

Fiona Davis considers herself to be a storyteller, weaving and untangling narratives of fiction and nonfiction using prose, verse, and illustrations. Beyond her third-year English studies at UC Davis, she can be seen exploring the Bay Area, pampering her cats and dogs, or making a mess of paint or thread or words in whatever project she’s currently working on.

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