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Miranda rights lose their meaning when not properly translated

Miranda v. Arizona, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that requires law enforcement officials make a person aware of his or her right not to make self-incriminating statements during an arrest, turns 50 this year.

Anyone who has viewed an arrest scene in a movie or TV show likely understands the gist of the Miranda rights. But what if you don't watch American TV or movies and English isn't your native language?

The American Bar Association (ABA) voted unanimously at its annual conference in August to create a uniform Spanish-language Miranda warning and urged law enforcement agencies to adopt such a warning for defendants who do not speak English well or at all. The recommendation comes after evidence shows that Spanish-speaking defendants have been read incorrect or mistranslated versions of their rights in a number of cases across the country, which compromises their opportunity for fair treatment by the judicial system.

Miranda's Basic Tenets

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that whenever a person is taken into police custody, he or she must be informed of their Fifth Amendment right not to make self-incriminating statements before being questioned. In short, the Miranda decision compels law enforcement authorities to inform a person who is arrested:

  • They have the right to remain silent.
  • Anything they say can a will be used against them in a court of law.
  • They have the right to an attorney.
  • If they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them.

According to the ABA's Special Committee on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, 874,000 arrests annually involve the use of Spanish-language Miranda warnings. In many of these instances, inaccurate translations that may violate a person's civil rights go unnoticed. Incriminating statements that individuals may not have made if they were properly informed of their Miranda rights are used against them.

Lost In Translation

The committee's report states that incorrect translations of the Miranda warning using Spanglish or completely made-up Spanish words are common. These mistakes can lead to inaccurate explanations that leave individuals confused as to what their rights truly are. For example, defendants have been told they have the right to "apuntar un abogado" - to "point at" a lawyer rather than have one appointed. Other defendants were told of a "right to answer questions."

In a high-profile case stemming from a 2008 arrest in Portland, Oregon, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a drug and gun conviction on the grounds that a district judge erred by admitting comments made by the suspect after he was given the Miranda warning in English and poor Spanish. The detective who arrested defendant Jeronimo Botello-Rosales used the Spanish word "libre" to mean without cost when it actually means "at liberty to do something." Botello-Rosales eventually took a plea deal for a lesser sentence.

The ABA commission plans to develop an official translation with help from law enforcement experts. It will distribute the translation to state attorneys general and local bar associations, according to Alexander Acosta, who chairs the ABA's Special Committee on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities.

It's an important step, but not a cure-all. A uniform Spanish-language Miranda warning does not take into account the fact that the Spanish language itself is not uniform. To help mitigate this, the committee plans to address regional or dialectal differences in its implementation. It is always wise to enlist the services of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who will protect your rights and advocate assertively on your behalf.

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