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Arizona man granted new sentencing in drug conviction

(Public Domain Photo)

WASHINGTON — A divided federal appeals court Tuesday ordered a new sentencing hearing in a drug case in which the presiding judge dismissed a Spanish-language interpreter after the defendant said he wanted to proceed in English.

A majority of the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Adalberto Murguia-Rodriguez deserved another sentencing hearing because the judge in his case failed to follow proper procedure when dismissing the interpreter.

In a dissent, Judge Consuelo Callahan said the majority’s opinion “punishes inarticulate district courts and rewards ‘gotcha’ tactics” by defendants.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona was not able to immediately respond to a request for comment on the case, but Murguia-Rodriguez’s attorney welcomed the decision Tuesday.

“I think that the 9th Circuit correctly interpreted the Court Interpreters Act and I think they accurately enforced the procedures that Congress intended judges to follow in respect to interpreters in the courtroom,” said Daniel Kaplan, the assistant federal public defender who argued the case on appeal.

Murguia-Rodriguez, a longtime legal permanent resident of the U.S., was stopped by Border Patrol agents Feb. 5, 2014, near Elfrida in a truck that was later found to have 130 pounds of marijuana and 45 rounds of .32-caliber ammunition. He was indicted on two counts – possession with the intent to distribute marijuana and possession of ammunition by a felon.

Murguia-Rodriguez – who was aided throughout his trial by an interpreter – conceded that drugs and ammunition were in the truck but that he had borrowed the truck and did not know they were there. A U.S. District Court jury in Tucson acquitted him of the ammunition possession count but convicted him on the drug count.

At his sentencing, however, Murguia-Rodriguez told the interpreter that he wanted to proceed in English. He said the same when questioned by the judge, who then asked if Murguia-Rodriguez wanted the interpreter to stay or if it was OK for her to leave.

Murguia-Rodriguez said, “She can stay,” prompting the judge to ask, “But do you need her – she has other duties. Do you need her to stay, or do you feel comfortable proceeding in English?” When he said he was comfortable proceeding, the judge dismissed the interpreter and the hearing continued, with Murguia-Rodriguez eventually being sentenced to 55 months.

But the appeals court said that under the Court Interpreters Act, an interpreter can only be waived if the party expressly requests the waiver after talking with counsel, and the presiding judge has explained the nature and effect of a waiver. The court said Murguia-Rodriguez did not expressly request the waiver and the judge didn’t explain the consequences, instead presenting Murguia-Rodriguez with a “false choice.”

“The error committed by the district judge, although motivated by a concern for judicial efficiency, is precisely the type of error the statute was designed to prevent,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the majority opinion. It noted that Murguia-Rodriguez testified that he only understands spoken English about 60 percent of the time.

In his dissent, Callahan said Murguia-Rodriguez could speak and read both Spanish and English, noting that he moved to the United States as a young child, attended high school in Tucson and worked at car washes, construction companies and restaurants. Callahan also noted that Murguia-Rodriguez’s attorney identified his client on several occasions as “English speaking.”

While the majority cited a docket entry from his first appearance that an interpreter was required, Callahan argued a single reference was not a “sufficient factual finding as to whether Murguia-Rodriguez’s English language skills inhibited his comprehension of the proceedings or communication with counsel or the judge.”

Callahan expressed concern that the ruling would lead to future defendants remaining silent in court and later claiming inadequate translation. He also said it would strap courts – already “overwhelmed” with 56,000 District Court proceedings in Arizona involving a Spanish interpreter – and may lead to overcautious judges forcing interpreters on bilingual and multilingual defendants who prefer English.

“I agree with the majority that interpreters play an important role in our criminal justice system,” Callahan wrote. “But the majority’s opinion does not safeguard defendants, it punishes inarticulate district courts and rewards ‘gotcha’ tactics.”

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