INDIANAPOLIS | Justice requires criminal defendants with limited English proficiency be provided competent translators to explain their constitutional rights and enable meaningful participation in their trials, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a 5-0 decision written by Justice Robert Rucker, a Gary native, the high court threw out the guilty plea of Victor Ponce, an Elkhart County man convicted in 1999 of selling cocaine near a school. Ponce is serving a 40-year prison term.
The Supreme Court determined through its review of the trial record that due to translating errors by the court interpreter, Ponce, a Spanish speaker, was not properly advised before pleading guilty of his rights to a jury trial, to confront witnesses and not testify against himself.
"To declare that a defendant with limited English proficiency who received an incorrect interpretation of the trial court's (constitutional) advisements should be equally culpable for his guilty plea as a defendant who is fluent in the English language and received an accurate and uninterrupted advisement directly from the trial court would work a great injustice not only on the (limited English) defendant, but on the integrity of our system as a whole," Rucker said.
While the justices acknowledged that Ponce knew a little English, they found he did not understand the language well enough to comprehend legal terms.
Coupled with the mistranslation of his rights by the Spanish interpreter, the court said it's clear Ponce's guilty plea was not knowingly and voluntarily given, and must be vacated and sent back to the trial court for a new hearing.
"Ensuring meaningful access to justice requires that all litigants — including those with limited English proficiency — are equally given the opportunity to participate meaningfully throughout the legal proceedings," Rucker said.
Since 2003, the Indiana Supreme Court has overseen a court interpreter program that certifies and sets ethical standards for courtroom translators. Lake Superior Court Judges Calvin Hawkins and Sheila Moss serve on the program's advisory committee.
Currently certified translators in 22 languages are available to Indiana criminal defendants.
Rucker notes in the Ponce ruling that the Supreme Court is considering creating a second tier of "qualified" translators to cover languages where certified translators are not available.