Can a language barrier in criminal cases prevent defendants from exercising their legal rights? That question is arising more often in New York domestic violence cases, as more victims are being considered as perpetrators because police cannot understand their stories. Imagine calling the police for help to protect you from an abuser - only to find yourself being hauled off, facing arrest and domestic assault charges because you sought assistance. It is not unfathomable - and it has happened to people in our city.
Consider the case of a woman who called Staten Island police for help after finding her niece lying at the bottom of the stairs. The woman attempted to tell officers that the younger woman had been pushed by her husband. Instead, the reporting party found herself under arrest. She was then charged with additional crimes including obstruction of governmental administration - all because she could not tell her story in English. After she was threatened with having her child removed by authorities, the woman pleaded guilty to a crime that she did not commit.
Now, the woman is one of a group of victims who are seeking compensation from the federal government through a discrimination lawsuit. The women claim that police officers violated their civil and legal rights by failing to find interpreters, leading to misunderstandings that caused long-lasting consequences. Police officers in New York will now be required to document their use of interpreters and seek help from professionals during investigations.
This should improve the accuracy of reporting during domestic violence incidents. The real abusers should be held accountable - it is unconscionable that victims should be punished for calling officers for help. Criminal defendants in domestic assault cases deserve to have their legal rights protected and their voices heard, even if interpreting is required.
Source: The New York Times, "Police Must Tackle Language Barrier in Domestic Abuse CAses," Ashley Southall, May 25, 2017