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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides one today, re due process right to adequate translation

In Victor Ponce v. State of Indiana, an 11-page, 5-0 opinion, Justice Rucker writes:

Victor Ponce is a non-native English speaker who pleaded guilty under terms of an agreement. He appeals the denial of his petition for post-conviction relief essentially contending that the Spanish translation of the rights he was waiving by entering the plea was so inaccurate his plea of guilty was not entered knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. We agree and reverse the judgment of the post-conviction court. * * *

[From the must-read "background on pp. 2-4]
For the last decade the State of Indiana has endeavored to create a more comprehensive and centralized interpreter program that ensures competent interpreter services in order to improve the quality of language access for LEP litigants. “Audits of interpreted court proceedings in several states have revealed that untested and untrained ‘interpreters’ often deliver inaccurate, incomplete information to both the person with limited English proficiency and the trier of fact.” Certification Program. Therefore, simply providing “any” interpreter upon request is insufficient. A “failure to accommodate persons with [language] disabilities will often have the same practical effect as outright exclusion[.]” Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509, 531 (2004) (discussing claim made by paraplegics that state denied them access to the courts). Thus, it is imperative to ensure accurate interpretation throughout the proceedings lest we run the risk of diminishing our system of justice by infringing upon the defendant’s rights of due process. It is with this background that we turn to the facts of this case. * * *

Had the trial court uttered the words relayed to Ponce by the interpreter, we doubt that a court of review would hesitate to declare that Ponce had not been given his Boykin advisements. Thus, we are of the view that an advisement from the mouth of the court-appointed interpreter instead of that of the trial judge to be a distinction without a difference. In sum, we conclude that Ponce has demonstrated that his 1999 guilty plea hearing was not conducted in accordance with the mandates of Boykin. * * *

Ensuring meaningful access to justice requires that all litigants—including those with limited English proficiency—are equally given the opportunity to participate meaningfully throughout the legal proceedings. As Justice Frankfurter aptly declared long ago, “there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.” Dennis v. United States, 339 U.S. 162, 184 (1950) (Frankfurter, J., dissenting). To declare that a defendant with limited English proficiency who received an incorrect interpretation of the trial court’s Boykin advisements should be equally culpable for his guilty plea as a defendant who is fluent in the English language and received an accurate and uninterrupted advisement directly from the trial court would work a great injustice not only on the LEP defendant, but on the integrity of our system as a whole.9

Conclusion. In this case Ponce carried his initial burden of demonstrating that at the guilty plea hearing he was not properly advised of the constitutional rights he was waiving by pleading guilty. And the State failed to show that the record as a whole nonetheless demonstrated that Ponce understood his constitutional rights and waived them. Therefore, Ponce’s plea of guilty must be vacated. We thus reverse the judgment of the post-conviction court and remand this cause for further proceedings.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 5, 2014 10:26 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions