Jury Duty Opened My Eyes to Legal Process Issues
By Arturo Castañares / La Prensa San Diego Publisher and CEO
One of the duties of living in our free society is the occasional inconvenience of having to serve on a jury, a responsibility that many people try desperately to avoid.
For me, that duty finally came last month when I received my first jury summons ever, and I went to the courthouse hoping, as everyone usually does, not to get assigned to a case.
On the second day, I was called along with about 75 others to begin the jury selection process for what was described as a two to three week trial.
After two days of questioning by the judge and attorneys, I ended up as Juror #4 in what turned out to be
a high-profile, hit and run DUI case.
What at first seemed like a straightforward case of a drunk driver fleeing a crash turned into a whodunit mystery of conflicting stories and no clear evidence of who was to blame for an accident that left a six year-old boy with lingering effects from a serious head injury.
The case turned on the issue of who was driving because both men in the truck said the other one was driving at the time of the accident. With no eyewitness to the crash and police only finding the truck 30 minutes after the crash, the case hinged on the testimony of the two men in the truck, both of which had more than 15 beers before driving, and both having lied to police about many aspects of their stories.
In the end, our jury couldn’t unanimously decide if the defendant was the driver, so we deadlocked on a verdict, and the judge was forced to declare a mistrial. Since we were the second jury to hang in this case, the judge then dropped the charges against the defendant, and the case was over.
But, the lack of a verdict isn’t what bothered me about the process. Our system of justice worked as designed, because a defendant is presumed to be innocent unless proven to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The reasonable doubt standard is so high that the system is designed to err on the side of letting a guilty person go more often than wrongfully convicting an innocent person.
In this case, the defendant was an undocumented immigrant that had been deported several times before the accident, but, despite his legal status in this country, our legal system affords him the same legal protections we all enjoy.
But, that wasn’t the issue that I found problematic.
What bothered me was that the San Diego Police officers and detectives that investigated this case were not more careful when dealing with a suspect that spoke little English, leading to several instances of misunderstandings during the suspect’s questioning, and raising concerns that language barriers may be leading to a violation of people’s basic rights.
In this case, the suspect was questioned by police in English when he clearly has only a basic understanding of the language. He was also very drunk (at least twice the legal limit to drive) and injured from an impact to the head he received just minutes before the car accident.
Yet, police officers conducted field sobriety tests and questioned him in that condition. And, when they finally decided to read him the Miranda warning, it was done in English.
I saw the police body camera videos of the questioning and it was clear the suspect had only a limited understanding of English, and was clearly drunk and confused. It isn’t reasonable to conclude that he understood his rights and waived them with any appreciation of the consequences.
It’s even more ironic that they read him the Miranda warning in English because they are named after Ernesto Miranda because his Supreme Court case led to police having to inform every suspect that they have certain rights, including to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning.
The fact that Spanish-speaking suspects are told of their rights in English seems like a miscarriage of justice if the suspect doesn’t understand what the Mirandizing means. If a suspect doesn’t comprehend the warning, is it a warning at all?
To compound the problem, San Diego Police officers and detectives that helped translate during the questioning made things worse because neither one spoke Spanish well enough to properly interpret the questions and answers.
For example, in one specific exchange between an English-speaking detective and the suspect, the detective asked the suspect if he, knowing he had been drinking heavily, felt that he should have been driving. That’s a fair question to ask to see if the person acknowledges the irresponsibility of driving while intoxicated.
In this case, the suspect admitted to moving the truck after the accident because it was blocking a street, but he maintained he wasn’t driving when the accident happened.
But, when the Spanish-speaking officer translated the question, he asked “did you have to drive,” not “should you have been driving.”
When the suspect responded “Yes,” he meant he felt he had to move the truck out of the way because it was in the middle of the street, not that he didn’t realize it was irresponsible.
But, what the detective understood was that the suspect thought that it was OK to be driving drunk. Two different questions and two different answers, but the detective didn’t understand the problem
Misunderstandings like that can lead a detective and prosecutors to think differently of a suspect or even incorrectly infer motives.
In court, the suspect was provided certified court interpreters to handle the questions and answers. Those interpreters did a great job of conveying, not only the words being said, but the proper context of the exchange.
Anyone that has ever tried to translate a joke can understand how difficult it is to convey the right meaning of a statement or story. Sometimes it even takes a different word or phrase to deliver the proper message. When that isn’t done correctly, the entire gist of the joke is lost.
In a much more serious way, the incorrect translating that may happen between police and suspects could lead to the wrong conclusion with devastating results.
All police should be required to use the services of certified interpreters when dealing with suspects that don’t speak English at a level that would ensure they comprehend their rights and any questions they are asked.
The American legal system stands alone in the world as the most protective of individuals’ rights, and we should all celebrate its process. In most countries, one is presumed guilty unless and until proven innocent. Those systems often lead to wrongful convictions and gross violations of people’s rights.
Under our Constitution, everyone under its legal jurisdiction is entitled to the same protections, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and, yes, even citizenship, language, and legal status.
We cannot allow anyone to fall victim to shortcuts or violations in the legal process because it risks the rights of all of us.
For me, as a jurist, I saw the criminal legal process up close for the first time, and it has made me more impressed with its protections, but also more aware of the potential of abuses.
We must all honor the system and help ensure it works for everyone; that’s the only way to expect it will work for us, too. Serving on a jury ensures each one of us is a check on the justice system.
So, as inconvenient as jury duty may be, it is a powerful fulfillment of our foundering fathers’ concept of equal justice under the law.
And the $15 a day pay isn’t too shabby either.