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Convictions Lost in Translation: Spanish-Language DUI Rights Form 'Unlawfully Coercive'

When you're being read your rights and advised of the law, you want that information to be accurate; especially if English isn't your native tongue and you're relying on a translation of your rights. But a Massachusetts woman is claiming that a local police department "has for years used an erroneous and unlawfully coercive Spanish-language advice of rights form in connection with arrests and prosecutions of Spanish-speaking Hispanic individuals" for DUI-related offenses.

And this is two years after the local district attorney admitted the form was a problem and would be working with the police department to "rectify it." Now the woman is suing the city, the police department, and the district attorney in federal court.

BAC Language Barrier

Patricia Pimentel claims the Methuen Police Department and the Essex County District Attorney's Office knew the Spanish-language advice of rights form for operating under the influence matters was unlawful when she was pulled over in October 2014 for suspicion of drunk driving. Back in May 2013, the DA's office explained that it would "be working with Methuen PD to rectify" the problem, but those translation issues apparently didn't get fixed.

Whether due to bad translation or bad intent, the form led Spanish-speaking suspects to erroneously believe:

  • The jury in a criminal trial would be informed of the individual's refusal to take the breathalyzer;
  • The legal limit for driving under the influence is a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10 and there is no "presumption" of impairment under 0.10, despite the "per se" theory of criminal liability for a BAC of 0.08 or more;
  • That a BAC of 0.05 or less will "liberate" the person from the charge; or
  • That a license suspension for refusing the breathalyzer will last only 120 days, not 180 days or longer.

Translating Under the Influence

The Essex County DA acknowledged the form was problematic, calling it "outdated and incorrect in several respects" and admitting the issues "may affect the validity of any consent to take the [breath test]." In fact, defendants had successfully gotten their drunk driving convictions overturned by challenging the validity of the form.

Pimentel's lawsuit, filed as a class action in United States District Court in Massachusetts claim the city, police, and DA violated class members' civil rights, under the United States Constitution, the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and state and federal law. The suit is asking for injunctive relief and damages for individuals injured by the form.

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