No Hablo Bueno: Mistranslated Miranda Means Suppressed Statements

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By William Peacock, Esq. on July 16, 2013 7:01 AM

It's hard to criticize the arresting officer here. One poorly-translated synonym may have cost this conviction, but, even with years of Spanish classes in high school and college, it's easy to see how one could make a similar mistake, especially if their Spanish has gotten as rusty as mine has.

Jeronimo Botello-Rosales was arrested on marijuana charges. Because he isn't fluent in English, the officer tried to provide the requisite Miranda warnings en Español. Alas, a minor mistranslation, and poor sentence structure, made those warnings ineffective. The warning, as provided, translates to:

You have the right to remain silence.

Anything you say can be used against you in the law.

You have the right to talk to a lawyer and to have him present with you during the interview.

If you don't have the money to pay for a lawyer, you have the right. One, who is free, could be given to you.

That's not too bad, is it? Well, it gets worse. The officer also used "libre" for free, which means "available," "has an open schedule," etc. It doesn't mean "without cost." He should've used "gratis."

When read in that context, at least according to the Ninth Circuit, the phrase "suggests that the right to appointed counsel is contingent on the approval of a request or on the lawyer's availability, rather than the government's absolute obligation."

Even the incantation, multiple times, of the correct warning in English won't cure the issue, as (1) Botello-Rosales doesn't speak English and (2) when an incorrect statement of rights is given in close proximity to a correct statement of rights, it's up to the government to prove that the person's rights have been clarified to him or her.

Personally, we're not completely sold. The phrase has "don't have the money," "you have the right," "could be given to you," and seems to get the point across. Requiring perfect grammar from an officer trying to use a second language to translate a statement of the defendant's rights seems a bit harsh, though if the court is going to err, it should err on the side of protecting the defendant.

Plus, the case has merely been remanded and the plea vacated. If there is additional evidence beyond the defendant's statements, a conviction or a plea deal is still quite possible.

Of course, this could all be solved by having police departments either force their officers to memorize the ever-so-ubiquitous Miranda warnings in Spanish (it is the second-most popular language in the United States, after all), or providing them with a written version for their glove box.

And, if you are a police officer seeking to avoid the "no hablo bueno" scenario, here is El Aviso Mirana en Español. Que bueno.

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