Defendants With Limited English Proficiency Have a Constitutional Right to Court Interpreters, Says ACLU

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Maria Archuleta, ACLU, (212) 519-7808 or 549-2666; media@aclu.org
Debbie Seagraves, ACLU of Georgia, (770) 303-8111; info@acluga.org
Araceli Martínez-Olguín, LAS-ELC, (415) 864-8848; amartinez-olguin@las-elc.org

Defendants With Limited English Proficiency Have a Constitutional Right to Court Interpreters, Says ACLU

ACLU Filed Friend-o-the-Court Brief With Georgia Supreme Court

ATLANTA - The Supreme Court of Georgia heard oral
arguments today regarding the constitutional rights of criminal
defendants with limited English proficiency (LEP) to court interpreters.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Georgia and Legal Aid
Society - Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC) filed a friend-of-the-court
brief in the case charging that denying LEP individuals interpreters
during criminal trials violates the U.S. Constitution.

"We don't have two systems of justice
in this country - one for English-speakers and another for everyone
else," said Azadeh Shahshahani, Director of the National
Security/Immigrants' Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia. "The
constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection apply to
everyone in this country, not just to fluent English speakers."

The ACLU's and LAS-ELC's brief was
submitted on behalf of Annie Ling, a Mandarin-speaker who was sentenced
to 10 years in prison and five years probation after a trial without an
interpreter to assist her. Because of her limited English, Ling did not
understand that she had the option to plead guilty rather than going to
trial and face a much longer sentence, and at the trial, she could not
understand the testimony for or against her. Her own trial attorney
admitted that because of her limited English skills, he could not
properly communicate with her without an interpreter. However, he
decided not to ask the court for an interpreter because he felt it would
make the trial "take a lot longer" and make the jury "impatient."

"Georgia's justice system failed Ms.
Ling from the beginning to the end," said Araceli Martínez-Olguín, an
attorney with LAS-ELC. "Georgia had an obligation to provide her with an
interpreter in order to guarantee her civil rights as well as her
rights to a fair trial and competent legal counsel."

The ACLU's and LAS-ELC's brief argues
that denying LEP individuals interpreters during criminal trials
violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of due process under the
Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Sixth Amendment rights
of criminal defendants to confront witnesses, be present at their own
trial and receive effective assistance of counsel. In addition, the
brief argues, Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires
the state of Georgia to provide competent interpretation services to all
LEP individuals who come into contact with its court system.

"Our Constitution promises all
criminal defendants a fair trial," said Jennifer Chang Newell, a staff
attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "But the
Constitution's promise is meaningless when a defendant's right to
liberty is determined at a trial that is incomprehensible to her."

Attorneys on the case, Ling v. Georgia, are Newell and David Wakukawa (a
volunteer attorney) of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, Azadeh
Shahshahani and Chara Fisher Jackson of the ACLU of Georgia and
Martínez-Olguín of the Legal Aid Society - Employment Law Center.

The legal brief can be found at: www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/ling-v-state-georgia-amicus-brief

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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