Legalese is tough for anyone to understand. But if you don’t speak English and go to court in Nashville, some pretty significant facts get lost in translation. Not least of these is the right to plead not guilty.
Just ask Zacarias Quinteros, who claims in a recent Davidson County criminal court filing that the language barrier may have prevented him from getting the justice he deserved.
The filing accuses at least one courthouse translator of playing the part of a lawyer by telling Quinteros to plead guilty without the defendant having consulted with his public defender. The document further alleges that the translator never told Quinteros that pleading not guilty was even an option. As a result, Quinteros—who was in court on a charge of driving without a license—pleaded guilty. He may not be the only one given legal advice by a translator that day.
The filing states that “approximately 10 Spanish-speaking defendants were also advised to plead guilty by the same interpreter.”
The filing is what’s called a petition for post-conviction relief, and is common. If a judge agrees with Quinteros’ position, then his conviction will be set aside and he will be granted a new hearing.
For Quinteros, this all began last April when he was pulled over with what appeared to be expired license plate tags. When the officer asked him for his driver’s license, Quinteros—who is not a U.S. citizen—produced “questionable proof of identification,” according to a sworn affidavit by the arresting officer. He was arrested for driving without a license, a misdemeanor. Quinteros was not charged with driving on expired tags.
According to the filing, Quinteros arrived in court the next day and was appointed a public defender and interpreter. Unfortunately, when it came time for Quinteros to register his plea, his lawyer “sat on a bench in the courtroom while [Quinteros] was advised by the interpreter to plead guilty.”
Also, Quinteros was not informed that he “had the option of pleading ‘not guilty’ ” and that he “would not have pleaded guilty had he known he had such an option.”
In another strange twist, the filing says the courtroom was closed to the English-speaking public. Immigration attorneys say closing a courtroom to English speakers is highly irregular.
Quinteros’ new, privately hired attorney, Sean Lewis, filed the petition last month claiming his client had been denied his constitutional rights during the hearing. Lewis refused comment on the matter, which is in the process of being scheduled for a hearing before a judge.
The Metro District Attorney’s office has not been formally notified of the petition and likely will not formulate a response until a hearing date is set.
Laura Dykes, a deputy public defender, says the attorney who was working Quinteros’ case that day is on maternity leave. Dykes says the attorney is a good lawyer and “all for the client getting whatever help he or she can get.”
Dykes was generally complimentary of the work that courthouse translators do. “They really are just trying to help the lawyers move cases,” she says. She also points out that translators sometimes overstep their bounds. “We do have some translators who like to tell people what the law is,” Dykes says. “They think that they’re helping.”
She recalls one translator in particular who regularly crossed the line, telling defendants “what they really ought to do.... He no longer works with us,” she says.
Warner Hassell, who coordinates the general sessions court where Quinteros’ hearing took place, was unfamiliar with the case and could not comment specifically about it. Hassell helps pick the interpreters that end up in General Sessions courtrooms. His office declined to make an interpreter available for an interview, citing court guidelines that bar employees from speaking to the media. He directed all questions to Judge Gloria Dumas, who did not return a call for comment.
This petition comes at a time when Hispanics have come under increased scrutiny by the recently implemented 287(g) program. The program allows a team of designated Davidson County Sheriff’s Department officers to check the immigration status of all foreign-born people who are arrested.
Since the program’s implementation in April of this year, there has been a 26 percent increase in the number of Hispanics arrested for driving without a license. Immigration advocates blame the dramatic increase on targeted enforcement of the Hispanic community. The sheriff’s department attributes the spike to the expiration of driving certificates that could be issued to all immigrants regardless of immigration status. Those certificates expired early this year.
Quinteros, who is not here legally, was the subject of a 287(g) inquiry and will soon go before a federal immigration judge. From there, he may be deported.
With 287(g)’s inception, immigrant advocates say there will only be more Spanish-speaking defendants in Nashville courts. Because of this, public defenders will be relying more on interpreters.
“Court interpreters will sometimes seek us out and say, ‘This guy on your docket is Spanish-speaking. Would you like help with him?’ ” says public defender Dykes.“I say, ‘Yes please.’ I don’t speak Spanish.
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