Thanks to Travis Tormey in New Jersey I learned about a New Jersey case which addressed the necessity of providing a sign language interpreter during a DWI arrest. The Defendant was charged with refusing to take a breath test (which apparently is a separate offense in New Jersey), and claimed she didn’t understand her rights – and the consequences of a refusal – because an interpreter was not provided. Instead of getting an interpreter – which the police claimed would have taken too long – they communicated through gestures and writing.

I admit I have a particular interest in this case; I have a son who is hearing impaired. One of my fears has always been that he will get stopped for something, and get arrested – or worse – because the officer thinks he’s ignoring him, or not being cooperative.

There is no doubt that if someone appears in court they are entitled to an interpreter so they can understand what is happening. It’s less clear whether interpreters are necessary prior to arrest. In a case where a defendant is being penalized for not complying with an officer’s request, it’s only fair they not only understand what they are being asked to do, and the consequences for not doing it. You might argue that providing warnings in writing is sufficient. If that’s true though, then why do officers need to read them. Trying to read and understand something while a police officer is staring over your shoulder is a daunting task. Most people rely on the officer’s explanations, and not the actual warnings that are in writing.

The failure to provide an interpreter doesn’t mean you can’t prosecute someone for driving while intoxicated. You still have other evidence. The only question raised here is whether you can either penalize someone for not complying with a request for a breath test, or perhaps using a refusal as evidence against you. If the relevance of such evidence is based on a knowing decision, then the answer should be easy – you can’t make a knowing decision if you don’t understand what all is involved.

Walter Reaves
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Criminal Defense Attorney Walter Reaves has been practicing law for over 35 years.
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