Are You Entitled to a Translator in a Maryland Criminal Proceeding?

lips-1383184-mUnder Section 1-202 of the Criminal Procedure Article, an interpreter will be appointed for a criminal defendant when the defendant can’t readily understand or communicate in English and can’t understand the charge or help with his or her defense. The court is required to appoint a spoken language interpreter when it determines a defendant doesn’t understand English well enough to participate in the proceedings or help his or her attorney, or where the defendant or a witness doesn’t speak English sufficiently to be understood by the attorneys, the court, and the jury.

In a recent case, a defendant sought review of a judgment that affirmed his conviction for sexual abuse of a minor, second-degree rape, and third-degree sexual offense. An intermediate appellate court had affirmed the lower court’s judgment. The defendant had come to the U.S. from Ghana four years before he was convicted and argued that the trial judge should have appointed an interpreter for his criminal trial. He asked the appellate court to review whether it was appropriate for the lower court to deny him an interpreter that he had requested.

The appellate court explained that the decision to appoint an interpreter is a two-part process. The first issue is whether the trial judge’s factual findings are clearly erroneous. If they aren’t, the reviewing court must then decide whether the judge abused his discretion in deciding whether or not to appoint the interpreter.

The trial judge in this case had to first look at whether the defendant could easily understand or communicate in English and whether he could understand the charge. The judge decided an interpreter was unnecessary.

The defendant’s attorney only advised the court he wanted an interpreter for the first time on the morning of the defendant’s trial. The defendant had asked his attorney to have the interpreter in the language of Ashanti the week before. The trial court asked the defendant questions about his educational level and his ability to use the English language. The court asked how far he went in school and the defendant answered that he was not good in English, but had learned a “lot of language.” Eventually the 44-year-old defendant answered he had gotten through middle school in Ghana. The trial court also asked what he had done for a living (home improvement), whether he knew what the charge against him was, and if he was able to communicate with his defense counsel in English, which he was. He agreed with the court that he didn’t always understand the idioms, and an inmate that spoke Ashanti had to help him. However, he understood the accusations against him.

The court explained that the State had the burden of proof. The defense attorney asked that the court ask questions other than leading questions. The court then asked open-ended questions. The defendant acknowledged that he spoke to his child and her mother in English and took his driver’s license test in English. The court told the defendant he could stop the proceedings at any time if he didn’t understand what was happening and then denied the request for interpreter.

The appellate court explained that a trial judge’s findings have to be clearly erroneous for the first prong of the test to be met. In this case, the judge had asked many questions before drawing the conclusion that the defendant understood and spoke English. The defendant argued that in general questions were to be phrased to avoid yes or no answers. The appellate court explained that the judge had asked multiple open-ended questions, even if he could have asked more. The judgment was affirmed.

If you are arrested or charged with a crime, you should consult with an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney. We will develop a strong strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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