Monday, August 13, 2012

People v. Sauceda-Contreras (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Aug. 13, 2012)

Deciding whether the invocation of the right to counsel is "equivocal" or not occasionally presents difficult questions.  As it does here.

But I agree with the California Supreme Court.  If a suspect's answer to whether he wants an attorney isn't clear, the police can follow up with questions to see what the suspect means.  Here, immediately after telling the suspect his Miranda rights, the officer asked the suspect:  "Having in mind these rights that I just read, the detective would like to know if he can speak with you right now?"  To which the suspect replied:

"If you can bring me a lawyer, that way I[,] I with who . . . that way I can tell you everything that I know and everything that I need to tell you and someone to represent me."

Is that sufficiently equivocal and/or unclear to permit the police to follow up by asking the suspect what he means by that?

Seems so to me.  I'm not really sure what the suspect's saying here.  Neither were the police.  He might well have been saying "Give me a lawyer and I'll talk."  But he might well have been saying something different.  A fact (coincidentally) confirmed by the officer's follow-up questions, which were:

“[Officer Trapp]: Okay, perhaps you didn't understand your rights. Um . . . what the detective wants to know right now is if you're willing to speak to him right now without a lawyer present?
“[Defendant]: Oh, okay that‟s fine.
“[Officer Trapp]: The decision is yours.
“[Defendant]: Yes.
“[Officer Trapp]: It's fine?
“[Defendant]: A huh, its fine.
“[Officer Trapp]: Do you want to speak to him right now?
“[Defendant]: Yes.”

So I agree with the result of this case, which reverses the contrary (unpublished) decision of the Court of Appeal.

The only thing I'd add to the California Supreme Court's discussion -- that perhaps cuts back a little bit on it (though, again, I still agree with it) -- is that all this stuff was spoken in Spanish.  So what we're reading is the transcript of the translation.  Mind you, there's no objection to the translation.  So it makes perfect sense to decide the case as if the translation is entirely accurate.

But when you're translating things, it's often very hard to decide whether something "makes sense" (i.e., is equivocal and/or unclear) or not.  Yes, if someone who spoke English said:  "If you can bring me a lawyer, that way I[,] I with who . . . that way I can tell you everything that I know and everything that I need to tell you and someone to represent me," I'd agree that that's sufficiently unclear to permit the officer to seek an elaboration.

Whether what the suspect said in Spanish was in fact unclear is harder to decide.  At least for people (like me) who neither speak Spanish nor have access to the untranslated version of what the suspect said.

To give an example, down here in San Diego, we have a variety of English-language radio stations that (for regulatory and/or tax reasons) are broadcast from Tijuana, and are hence subject to Mexican rules that make the stations occasionally broadcast English-language statements from the Mexican government; e.g., political, agency, anti-corruption, get-out-the-vote, and other government-sponsored messages.  I've probably heard a thousand or so of these things over the past decade.  Despite the fact that these messages are scripted and articulated by government spokespeople pursuant to a set translation, to "pure" English speakers like me, the translated statements are often very unclear and/or make little sense in English.  You constantly find yourself saying to yourself:  "Wait.  What exactly do you mean?"  You can understand the basic message, but given the different syntax and words used -- presumably because language doesn't often perfectly translate from Spanish to English -- the statements sometimes seem confused.

It's quite possible to me that that's what transpired here.  It's conceivable to me that the suspect here really was saying (in Spanish) that he wanted a lawyer, but that when translated to English, that message doesn't come out as clearly.  Hence the California Supreme Court's opinion.

No way to know, of course.  At least without hearing (and understanding) the original English.

But I wouldn't at all be surprised to see ambiguity arise from a translation.  Happens all the time.