Thursday, June 12, 2014

Alcala: Texas judiciary fails to protect constitutional right to interpreters for non-English speakers

"It seems that, despite the great strides that Texas's criminal-justice system has made in ensuring that all people will have fair trials, for every two steps forward there is one step back," Judge Elsa Alcala at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote in a dissent issued this week lamenting the failure of the high court to enforce defendants' right to an interpreter. Chuck Lindell at the Austin Statesman has an article on the case (June 11). His coverage opened:
In an unusually blunt condemnation, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Elsa Alcala rebuked her court Wednesday for endangering the rights of non-English speakers and for being “a stumbling block in the path toward a better criminal-justice system.”

The case that riled Alcala, and two fellow judges who joined her fiery dissenting opinion, involved Irving Garcia, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for fatally shooting a man about a dozen times outside a McAllen shopping center in 2010.

Garcia, a Spanish speaker who doesn’t understand English, declined the trial court’s offer of an interpreter on the advice of his lawyer, who spoke Spanish and briefly summarized the testimony of 13 English-speaking witnesses for his client.

The problem, Alcala wrote, was that the trial judge and defense lawyer didn’t fully advise Garcia of his constitutional right to an interpreter, impeding his ability to confront the witnesses against him. Garcia, 25, should be granted a new trial with a full-time interpreter, she concluded.

Instead, six members of the court determined that Garcia’s murder conviction was proper. While defendants must be provided an interpreter if they cannot understand English, they can waive that right if desired, the majority determined.

Alcala, however, argued that Garcia’s lawyer, not named in the opinion, declined an interpreter during an off-the-record meeting at the desk of District Judge Bobby Flores, who failed to question Garcia about his choice. Had he asked, Alcala wrote, Flores would have learned that Garcia’s decision had been coerced by his lawyer, who claimed an interpreter would be a distraction that would hinder his ability to provide quality representation.

Defendants cannot waive a constitutional right through coercion, Alcala said.

By failing to uphold Garcia’s right to understand the legal proceedings against him, she added, the majority delivered a “smoke-and-mirrors” ruling that jeopardized the rights of an estimated 2 million people in Texas who, like Garcia, don’t speak English.
Alcala's statement about two steps forward, one step back was not just a general observation but also a specific comment on the provision of translation services in Texas courts:
The Texas criminal-justice system has recently taken two steps forward with respect to providing for language access in courts. First, according to the Office of Court Administration (OCA), the Texas Legislature has recently provided funding for a Language Access Program to "help reduce linguistic barriers to meaningful justice in Texas courts." Second, as of April 2014, the "Texas Court Remote Interpreter Service (TCRIS) has now completed four months of successful operation, responding to requests from 52 judges in 39 counties for 157 hearings, for quality Spanish interpretation by licensed court interpreters." Despite these two steps forward to provide language access for non-English-speaking defendants in court, this Court's majority opinion takes the Texas criminal-justice system one step back in this regard. Here, although an interpreter was actually present in the trial court ready to provide his translation services for appellant, the trial court did not use him to translate for appellant, not even to ask appellant if he knew he had a right to an interpreter, if he wanted to waive one, and if so, whether his waiver was being made intelligently, knowingly, and voluntarily. Regardless of any steps taken by the Legislature and the OCA to provide language access for defendants in court, this Court will continue to constitute the stumbling block in the path toward a better criminal-justice system in Texas until a majority of the judges on this Court consistently enforce the federal constitutional right to an interpreter.
Alcala concluded that "This is not a problem caused by a lack of funding or inadequate access to interpreters, but is instead one that implicates a judicial failure to enforce federal constitutional rights."


Anonymous said...

Ah yes! Yet another financial burden imposed upon the taxpayers as a consequence of the federal government's failure to secure our borders! Wonder what the odds are that Garcia was here legally? Meanwhile, literally as we speak, it is estimated that at least 90,000 juvenile immigrants will illegally enter the country this year and another 150,000 next year. Of that number, I wonder how many will ultimately become associated with some type of criminal activity or be victimized or exploited themselves. But look on the bright side, we the taxpayers will get to provide them with free health care, public education and, for the ones who break the law, court appointed attorneys, interpreters --not to mention the costs of incarceration or some other type of supervision. Is this a great country or what! Thanks Obama!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:58 asks, "I wonder how many will ultimately become associated with some type of criminal activity"

The answer: Far fewer than US citizens, proportionally. Immigrants, legal and illegal, commit crimes at FAR lower rates than US citizens.

Also, what does Obama have to do with this? We had illegal immigrants in Texas long before he got into office and his administration has been expelling them in record numbers.

Anonymous said...

Care to site your source or is that a just a hunch?

Isn't crossing a border illegally a criminal activity?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:01, first, half of "illegal immigrants" entered legally and overstayed their visa. So they didn't all "cross a border illegally." Further, being in the US illegally is a civil, not a criminal violation in most instances. So no, it's not the same as criminal activity.

As for the source on immigrants and crime, the data are unequivocal for anybody who's ever actually looked at it. About 6% of TDCJ inmates are immigrants while about 14% of people living in Texas are foreign born. The Migration Policy Institute some years ago calculated that "Surprisingly, at least from the vantage of conventional wisdom, the data show the above hypotheses [that immigrants commit crimes more often] to be unfounded. In fact, the incarceration rate of the US born (3.51 percent) was four times the rate of the foreign born (0.86 percent). The foreign-born rate was half the 1.71 percent rate for non-Hispanic white natives, and 13 times less than the 11.6 percent incarceration rate for native black men." Radley Balko has links to some of the research on why here.

Anonymous said...

Problem with the state and stat sources you are dropping, they do not consider what percentage of crime the 14% the population is responsible for committing. Second, when an illegal offender is deported they are not counted in the TDCJ population. Thirdly,
A US citizen has a permanent record (CCH) that clearly shows the offense history and frequency.

Anonymous said...

Grits, it's becoming abundantly clear that Obama's immigration policies are at the root of the influx of illegal juveniles. Are you keeping up with the news at all? These juveniles are crossing the border in record numbers and promptly turning themselves in to the immigration authorities so they can be placed in detention and later claimed by a "relative" on this side of the border (Query: How is ICE able to accurately verify the relationship status of the juvenile and his/her so-called "relative" in this country?). Obama himself referred to this circumstance as a "humanitarian crisis." His anti-deportation policies and advocacy for amnesty has motivated this influx and "we the people" are going to get stuck with the tab. With that said, if the illegals are so much better and more law abiding than the rest of us, perhaps our president could just give them all amnesty and deport the rest of us! Problem solved!

Anonymous said...

At TYC I watched as the percentage of Hispanic inmates became larger and larger until it became over 50% and kept increasing. Is there a connection between the massive influx in those crossing the border and the explosion in the Hispanic population in prisons?

BTW, we now see how easy it is for even 5-year-olds to walk across the border.

Anonymous said...

But 4:38, our southern border is more secure than it's ever been! NOT!

Anonymous said...

"...Yet another financial burden imposed upon the taxpayers as a consequence of the federal government's failure to secure our borders!..."

Maybe the taxpayer should learn Spanish. If we educate the ignorant, then we wouldn't need interpreters and there would be no financial burden.

Anonymous said...

When I was in the courts as a youngster, no one ever cared about my inability to speak English. Was that because I was speaking German? If so, what is the "constitutional" basis for such differing standards? I had a friend who was tried and convicted while he was deaf and he had no access to an ESL/ASL interpreter. Maybe if his last name ended in "Z" he would have been given consideration.

Anonymous said...

Judge Alcala is wrong. Defendants are coerced into waiving their constitutional rights all the time. That is the essence of the plea bargain system.

Anonymous said...

How about becoming an "english speaker" as a part of the naturalization process? Many, many immigrants take it upon themselves to learn the language of the country where they intend to live. If you don't want to learn spanish I would highly recommend you DON'T go live in Mexico. If you don't wish to learn Chinese, DON'T go live in China. WHy in the hell should Americans be expected to hold your hand and kiss your ass because you don't want to learn English?

Anonymous said...

An organization of former Border Patrol agents Wednesday charged that the federal government, under the administration of President Obama, is deliberately arranging for a flood of immigrant children to arrive in America for political purposes.
“This is not a humanitarian crisis. It is a predictable, orchestrated and contrived assault on the compassionate side of Americans by her political leaders that knowingly puts minor illegal alien children at risk for purely political purposes,” said the statement released by the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers.


rodsmith said...

how true. I can remember years ago back in the late 80's the feds were trying to force Alabama to give driving tests in Spanish and lots of other languages. state refused. when called on it they responded.

"Last time we looked none of the street signs and other driver info is in any language BUT English."

would never work in south Florida unfortunately since most there are in Spanish not english

Anonymous said...

So is j walking and fail to stop at a stop sign these are dangerous crimes .. really they are , i saved my friend from being hit by a car in corpus he was a darn Texican just like me.