Language Barrier Affects Court’s Ability to Comprehend Facts

By Anna Zheng

WOODLAND, CA – Jeremy Morrow appeared in Yolo County Superior Court for a preliminary hearing concerning a felony charge of threatening a crime with the intent to terrorize—but a major communication problem with a key witness resulted in that felony being reduced to a misdemeanor.

On August 24, 2020, Morrow was at a Walmart with his kids, where he was accused of shoplifting by one of the employees. Morrow then allegedly took out a firearm and threatened those around him that he would “shoot and kill anyone who [got] closer.”

The prosecutor called one of the employees who witnessed the scene at Walmart. However, during his testimony, the court was unable to differentiate the employee’s words.

The court reporter said, “I couldn’t understand what he said,” to which the public defender added, “I didn’t understand either.”

Judge David Reed tried to resolve the issue by asking the employee to talk a little slower and advised him, “Just take off your mask while testifying, you have my permission.”

The defense interjected as she considered the language barrier to be a substantive issue.

“I’m going to object to the competency of the testimony, not from the witness’s perspective. This is not his fault, but I have the right to cross-examine this witness against my client,” she argued.

“We have the right to have a witness who is able to testify in a competent manner so that the court reporter can take down what the witness is testifying to and I have a due process right to fully cross examine this witness. This language barrier is not allowing the defense to do that,” the defense elaborated.

Judge Reed then asked if she was requesting a continuance, to which she responded “no” in a loud and urgent manner. Before she could explain, Judge Reed cut her off and said, “I’m already asking the witness to speak slower to try and accommodate everyone, so your objection is overruled because he was not allowed to do that.”

Judge Reed then asked the employee again to repeat his answer and take off his mask. The judge repeated, “Please take off your mask” four times—however, the employee did not.

The employee was in a state of confusion as he asked, “My one question, why are you doing here? Why am I doing here?”

The defense interjected again, “That’s what I’m trying to ask you sir because this is what I think. Did you actually see anything that –”, however, the employee cut her off as he kept repeating the words, “1,000 customers” while she was speaking.

She then raised her voice to state, “I’m still raising the same objection, He is not competent to testify in this hearing in English and I believe that is a foundational requirement that the People have to make when the defense objects to competency and I’m doing it based on the language barrier.”

The prosecutor responded, “He is able to testify in English, but if she is objecting then I think the People are entitled to a continuance.”

The defense lastly added, “This witness is trying to communicate with us and he cannot do it efficiently. Aren’t we here to find the truth?”

Judge Reed understood her point, but stated that he is unable to determine what authority he would rely on to make a ruling.

The prosecutor then proposed a solution, “We can strike the employee’s testimony. I have another witness that’s here and I can proceed with that witness.”

The defense then responded, “I would like to hear what he has to say and the problem is… we’re gonna… fine. Fine.”

Judge Reed then allowed the prosecutor to call “FH” to the stand, who was at the scene as security and testified that Morrow was “was angry… and told us basically get out of it and that any of us could, like, get it.”

FH’s testimony revealed that the employee had grabbed Morrow’s bag when he thought he was stealing, which resulted in Morrow threatening the employee, “Come out here. I’m gonna bury your a**.”

FH, however, did not recall seeing Morrow with a gun when she heard him say he was going to “shoot and kill anyone who [got] closer” to him and his family.

After considering all the facts of the case, Judge Reed decided to reduce Morrow’s felony charge to a misdemeanor.

Judge Reed added that this was a close case, where “[t]hreatening to shoot someone with a gun or saying you are going to is really serious. However, we don’t have evidence that he had a gun. People tell people that they’re going to kill people all the time and they are charged with criminal threats, but in this case it’s a little bit different.”

About The Author

Anna Zheng is a fourth year at UC Davis from Sonoma, California. She is studying International Relations and Economics with the intent of pursuing a J.D. degree in the future. Ultimately, she hopes to pursue a career in consulting, finance, intellectual property or business immigration law.

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