miranda-warning

An estimated 900,000 times a year, law enforcement officers recite some version of the fabled “Miranda warning” to criminal suspects in Spanish.

But 50 years after the Miranda v. Arizona U.S. Supreme Court ruling first required police to tell those in custody that they have a right to remain silent and a right to an attorney, no single, agreed-on Spanish translation is used.

The American Bar Association may take steps toward remedying the situation this week at its San Francisco annual meeting by taking on the task of crafting and promoting a uniform translation.

The effort may sound trivial at first, but Florida International University Law School dean R. Alexander Acosta says “too many cases have been struck down because of this problem.”

Acosta chairs the ABA’s Special Committee on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, which will ask the association’s House of Delegates to endorse a resolution on the issue. Several other ABA committees on diversity and legal aid have signed on.

The committee came up with the proposal as part of the ABA’s focus on the 50th anniversary of Miranda. The case stemmed from the arrest in Phoenix in 1963 of Ernesto Miranda, who had Hispanic roots, though language was not an issue in the case. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a critic of the Miranda ruling, nonetheless wrote in a 2000 case, “Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture.”

But when officers recite the warning in Spanish, the result is “woeful,” according to the committee’s report to the House of Delegates.

One example of the problem, Acosta said, came in a 2013 California case in which an officer used the wrong Spanish word for “free” in telling the suspect, as part of the Miranda warning, that if he could not afford a lawyer, one would be provided at no cost.

The officer used the word “libre,” which means available and at liberty to do something—instead of “gratis,” or at no cost. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the incorrect wording “suggests that the right to appointed counsel is contingent on the approval of a request or on the lawyer’s availability,” and dismissed the defendant’s conviction on drug charges.

“No one benefits from that,” Acosta said. “In the world of Google translations, we have to be careful.”

In other cases cited by the committee, police used “Spanglish” phrasing or made-up words like “silento” in conveying the Miranda warning.

The committee’s report suggested that officers may be relying on their own high school education in Spanish, which may be “quite limited,” or they use “unofficial interpreters” such as other defendants or a defendant’s friend.

Some police departments use Spanish language “Miranda cards,” but some of those use incorrect wording, according to the committee’s report. Miami-Dade County public defender Carlos Martinez helped compile the research on “Spanish Miranda” case law.

Acosta said the ABA is well suited to develop and agree on the most accurate translation and then to spread the word about it.

“We would like to be the source for this,” Acosta said. “And it should not be limited to Spanish.”

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Tony Mauro can be contacted at tmauro@alm.com. On Twitter: @Tonymauro