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Questionable Spanish translation leads judge to toss out defendant's statement to police in case of fatal crash

TAMPA — A judge tossed out statements a Spanish-speaking defendant gave police regarding a fatal Interstate 4 collision on the grounds that his legal rights had not been not adequately translated.

Luis Gonzalez-Ines, 27, of Plant City is awaiting trial in an accident that killed a motorcyclist last May. Court documents say Gonzalez-Ines was under the influence and ran away from the crash scene.

Excluded from the evidence is the English transcript of a police interrogation. Attorneys for both sides argued over its admissibility Friday.

Circuit Court Judge Chet Tharpe took the weekend to consider the defense's request to suppress the evidence, after a public defender told the court Friday some of her client's responses to questions indicated he was confused.

"He doesn't understand what's going on at the time he is being interviewed," Maria Pavlidis told the court.

Pavlidis also contended the officer who translated the interview never told Gonzalez-Ines in Spanish he could have an attorney present during an interrogation.

But Assistant State Attorney Barbara Coleman argued that Gonzalez-Ines was read the Miranda rights in English and Spanish. He was asked to confirm that he understood, and Gonzalez-Ines told officers he did.

"It's very clear to him that he can stop answering," Coleman said. "It's clear to him that he can have an attorney."

The document in question was not made public.

Without providing an explanation in court Monday, Tharpe sided with Pavlidis. The case will go to trial Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. without mention of the statements.

Miami attorney Brian Tannebaum, president-elect of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has practiced criminal law for 15 years.

Tannebaum said that from a suspect's first encounter with police until he reaches trial, there are ample opportunities for language barriers to create confusion and complicate the legal process.

"In any case where translations are not done accurately, there is always an opportunity to find error," he said. "Sometimes just the one word can make a difference in an entire case."

He said court translators abide by an oath to provide nearly verbatim translations, but in the legal system, it's more important that a defendant fully understand his or her rights. The wording is secondary.

"You're not going to have something thrown out generally because something wasn't translated word for word if the suspect understands that they had certain rights," he said.

Steven Overly can be reached at soverly@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

Questionable Spanish translation leads judge to toss out defendant's statement to police in case of fatal crash 06/29/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 29, 2009 11:40pm]
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