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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Language barrier can hinder the legal process

7960707_local_interpreters_standalo The recent case of Jos Lopez Meza appears to be an anomaly, but it raises the question of whether non-English speakers who are accused of crimes are being understood.

Meza faced a possible death penalty in connection with his infant son's death. But one of the reasons he may only serve three to 15 years on a manslaughter charge is that court-certified interpreters found that parts of his interview with Nampa police had been misinterpreted.

"When an individual is missing a word, it's not just a word. It's something that will make or break your case," said Estella Zamora, interpreter coordinator for Canyon County who headed the effort to transcribe the hours-long video and audio tapes of Meza's interview with police.

Meza is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 5.

While the courts have procedures in place to ensure the accuracy of proceedings that involve non-English speakers, law enforcement agencies do not have policies that guarantee the correctness of what is said during investigations, before a suspect appears in court.

That lack of accuracy may make it more difficult to prosecute criminals, but it also may make it more difficult for innocent people who don't speak English to get a fair trial.

ENSURING THE RIGHTS OF THE ACCUSED

The U.S. Constitution challenges law enforcement agencies and the courts to make sure that people know their rights, the charges against them and that they have the right to defend themselves, regardless of what language they speak.

"The right to due process is involved whenever the state is involved in anything," said attorney Ritchie Eppink.

Both arms of the state meet that challenge in different ways.  [Mark Godsey]

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