A man in a Virginia court on a traffic case was told by an interpreter he was accused of a “violación,” which in Spanish does not mean “violation,” but “rape.” The interpreter should have used the word “infracción.”The distressed man firmly denied what he thought was a rape charge. Such misunderstandings are surprisingly common in state and local courts, reports Stateline. Because many states and localities don’t use tested court interpreters and ignore federal rules for when interpreters are required, criminal defendants and civil litigants with limited English skills are not equipped to navigate the complex legal system, jeopardizing their constitutional rights.
Many state and local courts allow uncertified interpreters to serve even if they haven’t passed a test. Many states also ignore the federal mandate that they provide free interpreters in both criminal and civil courts. In some states, the U.S. Justice Department has stepped in. Since 2010, the department has investigated courts in Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina and Rhode Island for failing to comply with federal rules. Because about 25.6 million U.S. residents have limited proficiency in English, the credibility of the nation’s justice system relies on competent interpreters. “Is everyone providing [interpreters] across the board and free of charge? No. But it’s generally accepted now that that’s how it should be,” said Vanessa Ruiz, a judge with the District of Columbia Court of Appeals who chaired the American Bar Association’s language access project.