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Miranda rights are meaningless if they are mistranslated

It has been 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miranda v. Arizona that all criminal suspects must be advised of their rights before being questioned. The country was nowhere near as diverse as it is now, so the importance of informing individuals of their legal rights in their native language was not as much of a concern.

Today, with large Latino immigrant populations living in cities across the U.S., the notion that a person who is being arrested may not fully understand the rights being explained to him or her is more of a reality. In fact, evidence shows that Spanish-speaking defendants have been read incorrect or mistranslated versions of their rights in a number of cases throughout the U.S, which has resulted in confusion and convictions being overturned.

Miranda rights essentially inform a person they have a right to remain silent, a right to an attorney (at no cost, if necessary), and that anything they do say can be used against them in a trial.

ABA Seeks Uniform Translation

This summer, the American Bar Association (ABA) voted unanimously at its annual conference to create a uniform Spanish-language Miranda warning. It urged law enforcement agencies to adopt such a warning for defendants who do not speak English well or at all.

In its proposal to establish a standard Spanish translation of the Miranda Rights, the ABA's Special Committee on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities stated that poor translations end up conveying the wrong information. For example, in some cases mentioned in the proposal, officers mistakenly used the Spanish word "libre" instead of "gratis" to explain that a lawyer would be provided to a defendant at no cost. "Libre" means "liberty," so defendants may not have understood that they had access to a lawyer at no cost.

A First Step

The ABA commission plans to develop an official translation with help from law enforcement experts. It will distribute the translation to state attorneys general and local bar associations, according to Alexander Acosta, who chairs the ABA's Special Committee on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities.

It's an important step, but problems remain. The committee understands there are many regional differences in the Spanish language that could still leave individuals confused. And there is a need for a uniform translation of the Miranda in many other languages. The problem reinforces the important point that it is always wise to enlist the services of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who will review every aspect of your arrest in order to protect your rights.

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