Anyone who has ever watched a TV crime show is no doubt familiar with the Miranda warning. Police (at least the ones on the small screen) typically say something like this while slapping handcuffs on a suspect: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense. Do you understand?”
Simple enough. But as it turns out, not really. This week, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction of an Oregon man who received an incorrect rendition of the Miranda warning from detectives in Spanish but a proper one in English.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that because the warning administered to Jeronimo Botello-Rosales did not “reasonably convey his right to appointed counsel as required by Miranda, his subsequent statements may not be admitted as evidence against him.” In 2003, the court reached the same conclusion in another case involving Oregon law enforcement personnel who incorrectly translated the warning in Spanish.
Surely, some may argue that such a strict requirement places an unfair burden on law enforcement personnel who may, for example, have a hard time finding a way to adequately translate the Miranda warning into, say, Igbo, the Niger-Congo language. Others may wonder how police can interrogate someone whom they can’t even communicate with, much less question.
I disagree. First, because police can obtain useful information other than by talking. A person may understand a nominal amount of English and may nod his head in response to a question from police before he is advised of his rights.
Second, the burden of translating the warning is far easier to overcome today than it was years ago, thanks in large part to technology. There is a smartphone app for just about anything, including Miranda warnings. And many cities with diverse communities have already adapted to ensure they meet their obligation. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, provides officers preprinted cards or notebooks.
But most important, it isn’t as if the requirement to issue such warnings is a newly imposed duty. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Miranda vs. Arizona was issued in 1966. And some would argue that given that we already provide translators in criminal trials, it makes sense to ensure that a suspect fully understands his rights before he is interrogated.
It’s not just a matter of fairness but also a waste of resources to arrest an individual without properly rending a warning, only to see the case thrown out in court.