Sunday, April 27, 2008
The Court of Appeals of Texas' recent opinion in Pitts v. State, 2008 WL 1747664 (Tex.App.-Houston 2008), provides a nice illustration of the "language conduit" rule. The facts of the case were as follows. In 2005, Antonio Morales was a passenger in the car of his cousin, the complainant, when they stopped at a red light. Lakeisha Ball, the former girlfriend of the defendant, approached the passenger side of the car and spoke to the complainant, who turned off the ignition and told Morales that they would leave in a minute. The defendant, however, suddenly appeared, placed a gun to Morales's head, and demanded the complainant's keys. The defendant and Ball then entered the back seat of the car, and the defendant gave the keys back to the complainant and told him to drive.
As they were driving, the complainant "apparently volunteered to interpret" and told Morales, who spoke no English, that the defendant said for Morales to give the defendant his money. Morales initially gave the defendant his money and then gave the defendant his wallet when the complainant told Morales that the defendant was demanding it, too. When they later stopped in a vacant lot, the complainant told Morales that the defendant said for Morales to get out of the car and to kneel down. Morales did so, thinking that the defendant was going to shoot him; instead, the defendant shot the complainant, who died from a single gunshot to the back of the chest. At trial, Morales testified about the statements the complainant translated from the defendant to him, and the defendant was convicted of capital murder.
On appeal, the defendant alleged, inter alia, that the trial court erred by permitting Morales to testify about the hearsay statements made by the complainant. The Court of Appeals of Texas, however, found that the statements were admissible pursuant to Texas Rule of Evidence 801(e)(2)(D), which allows for the admission of "a statement by the party's agent or servant concerning a matter within the scope of the agency or employment, made during the existence of the relationship." Traditionally, this Rule applies when an employee makes a confession which binds his employer, but it also allows for the admission of statements made under the "language conduit" rule, "whereby a translated statement of a defendant is admissible on the theory that the interpreter serves as an agent of, or a language conduit for, the declarant-defendant, thus rendering the statement the defendant's own admission."
The Court of Appeals then noted that Texas courts determine whether the "language conduit" rule applies based upon four factors: (1) which party supplied the interpreter; (2) whether the interpreter had any motive to mislead or to distort; (3) the interpreter's qualifications and language skill; and (4) whether actions taken subsequent to the conversation were consistent with the statements as translated. The court then found most of the complainant's statements admissible based upon these factors (the subsequent actions were consistent, and the complainant had fluency in both languages and no motive to mislead).
Texas' application of the "language conduit" rule is consistent with case law in other states and several federal circuits, but not all courts gave adopted such a rule. See, e.g., State v. Rodriguez-Castillo, 151 P.3d 931, 937 (Or.App. 2007). I think, however, that as long as courts such as Texas courts can be diligent in ensuring that translated statements are reliable before admitting them, there is good reason for the universal adoption of such a rule.