Does a Defendant Have a Right to Cross-Examine an Interpreter?

A criminal defendant always has the right to cross examine those who accuse him or her of a crime. A new Maryland criminal case discusses the limits of that right, and whether it can be applied to language interpreters.

Deaf Man Accused of Inappropriate Behavior

The accused worked at a school for the deaf, and was deaf himself. He communicated with only sign language, but read and spoke no English. He was fired when female students accused him of inappropriately touching them. He was then arrested, and underwent an extensive interrogation by the police.

During the interrogation, the police “spoke” through sign language interpreters to the accused. Through the interpreter, the accused said he had never inappropriately touched anyone. He did say that hallways were crowded, and he could have accidentally brushed someone, or that his friendly hugs to students may have been interpreted incorrectly.

The accused was charged with sexual abuse. At trial, many witnesses who were deaf testified that while touching was common among the deaf community, they felt the accused’s touching was abnormal. The jury also saw the interrogation video, where they of course only “heard” the accused through the sign language interpreter, but the actual interpreter never testified.

Confrontation Clause Violated

This, the accused argued, violated his constitutional right to confront his accuser, known as the confrontation clause of the constitution.

This was important because the accused alleged that he had stated during interrogation that if he brushed against students inappropriately, it was accidental. But the interpreter translated that to mean that the accused had in fact touched students, but the touching was accidental.

The accused appealed the trial court’s denial of his right to cross examine the interpreter. The question presented was to whether an interpreter was someone that a defendant has a constitutional right to cross examine. The State argued that cross examination was unnecessary, because the interpreter was just translating what the accused said. In other words, the State argued the interpreter had no statements separate from the accused’s.

But the Court disagreed. The Court felt that the interpreter was not mindlessly parroting the accused’s words. Both the accused and the interpreter, “speaking” different languages, made independent and separate declarations. The State’s argument would imply that interpretation is easy or basic, but the Court noted there often is no correct word-for-word translation between languages. Courts have even recognized that in interpreting some level of opinion by the interpreter is inherent.

An interpreter’s integrity, bias, training, or methodology can also vary, and as such could be brought out in cross examination.

Thus the appellate court held that the accused had a right to cross examine the interpreter, and admitting the interpreter’s “statements” on the interogation video was error. The Court sent the case back to the lower court for a new trial.

Make sure your attorney understands what evidence can and cannot be used against you if you are accused of a crime. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss representation from arrest to trial.