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Lawyers Push For Spanish-Language Miranda Warnings


If you've ever watched a cop show, you're familiar with these lines - you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? This is the Miranda warning. Police are required to recite it to anyone they take into custody.

The last line of the warning - the part about understanding, well, that's come into question. An estimated 800,000 people taken into custody each year are native Spanish speakers. But there's no official Spanish language translation of Miranda. The American Bar Association is trying to change that. And Alex Acosta, chair of the ABA Special Committee on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities joins us now. Hi there, Alex.

ALEX ACOSTA: How are you doing, Allison?

AUBREY: Just fine. So just briefly, walk us through the history of the Miranda warning.

ACOSTA: Sure. Well, 50 years ago, the court made clear that the Miranda warnings were required and did some measure to ensure that individuals who are arrested know their rights. As you said, at least 800,000 individuals are arrested each year - individuals who are native Spanish speakers and who should receive Miranda warnings in Spanish, yet 50 years after the Miranda decision, we don't have an official translation of Miranda. And that causes far too many cases to be thrown out of court after the fact because the individuals did not understand their Miranda warnings.

AUBREY: So is there evidence that the way police are reciting this now that it's getting in the way of people understanding their Miranda rights?

ACOSTA: There is, and I'll give you some examples. Sometimes police use words that simply are not Spanish, you know, the right to silento. Adding a vowel at the end of an English word does not make it a Spanish word. Sometimes they use Spanish words that don't mean the same thing as the English translation. You know, the right to have an attorney appointed has been translated into the right to have an attorney that points to something.

And, regrettably, even in cases where police have what they call translation cards, there have been several cases where the translation cards themselves have been mistranslated. And so it's, you know - it's so easy for the ABA or another national organization to produce and vet a uniform translation of Miranda - that it's something that really should be done.

AUBREY: So if an officer doesn't speak Spanish and there's a translation card and it's a uniform translation that everyone's familiar with, in lieu of reading it if they don't speak Spanish well or can't pronounce the words, is there another way of doing it?

ACOSTA: There are many ways that this can be done, and we have the technology now so that we can have apps, we can have iPhones. And I should say, you know, this isn't just an issue for Spanish with modern technology. You can do this for so many languages and really take the responsibility and the obligation away from the police officer to have to look through various translation cards and read in a language that they don't speak Miranda warnings to individuals when they are arrested.

AUBREY: So there are thousands of police departments around the country. If you don't have the power to, you know, force police departments to implement this, you're just suggesting this language, what is the power of this?

ACOSTA: Well, the American Bar Association is a national organization. It works with state bar associations. It works with local bar associations, and at the end of the day, this is a suggestion. But it's in law enforcement's interest to get this right because if the right Miranda warnings are not used, then whatever statements are made can later be thrown out and have been thrown out.

And so this is something where, you know, the defense bar should welcome it because it's important to have accurate Miranda rights. The prosecution bar should welcome it because it's important for them to have accurate Miranda rights, and law enforcement should welcome it because all of our joint goal is to make sure that defendants know their rights, that their statements are therefore given with full warning and admissible in court and that we have a justice system that works.

AUBREY: I want to talk a little bit about the culture of policing. Earlier on our program, we talked about the Department of Justice's recent report on policing in Baltimore, and I think throughout the country there are tensions between police and communities of color. Do you think that a more easily understood Miranda could play a role in easing these tensions?

ACOSTA: Well, I think any effort by law enforcement to understand that there are language barriers that need to be addressed could certainly play a role in easing these tensions. You know, police by and large, like every profession, are trying to get it right, and this is a tool that we hope can help police get it right.

AUBREY: That's Alex Acosta. He's chair of the ABA's Special Committee on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities. Thanks so much for joining us, Alex.

ACOSTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.