Reprinted with Permission from The Columbus Dispatch
A Spanish-language interpreter for Franklin County Municipal Court was fired last month because he couldn’t interpret legal terms, possibly jeopardizing the constitutional rights of thousands.
“It’s the legal standard to hear and understand the charges against you so that you can defend yourself,” said Bruno Romero, Interpreter Services program manager for the Supreme Court of Ohio. “It’s a critical point.”
Richardo Bustos, 42, made up words, including the Spanish word for “defendant,” and guessed when he did not understand legal terms in English, according to court documents.
“It very well may be a violation of their rights,” said Gary Daniels, associate director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
Bustos couldn’t be reached for comment last night.
The court does not know how many people Bustos interpreted for in the approximately 2 1/2 years he worked for the court, said Keith Bartlett, court administrator.
Records show that almost 18,000 people used a Spanish-English interpreter in 2007 and 2008 in Franklin County Municipal Court.
Administrative Judge Carrie Glaeden said the court does not plan to review the cases that Bustos worked on.
“In 99 percent of the cases (in my court) where Mr. Bustos would have been interpreting, the English-speaking attorney, judge and prosecutor and Mr. Bustos … understand what the plea will be. If Mr. Bustos misinterpreted a word, the end result is the same. Everyone agreed on the plea and on the fine,” she said.
“The fact that it doesn’t happen all the time is of no comfort to the person it did happen to and who is now in jail,” said Daniels. Defendants should understand exactly what is said in court, he added.
They could appeal their cases based on Bustos’ involvement, but they would need proof that the interpreting was inaccurate, said Jack R. Kullman Jr., Franklin County Court of Appeals administrator.
That might not be easy, he said. Court reporters record only what is said in English, and interpreters speak quietly to participants to avoid disturbing the proceedings.
The Municipal Court employs two full-time Spanish-English interpreters and contracts with a company for additional Spanish-English interpreters and for other languages, but does not track which interpreter works on which cases.
According to court documents, in a June hearing regarding his qualifications, Bustos testified that he had “not mastered legal vocabulary in English or Spanish, for sure,” but because everything is repetitive in the courtrooms he has a “well-enough grasp of actual phrases and words.”
Judge Julia L. Dorrian disagreed. She determined that Bustos was not qualified to interpret, although he is bilingual. He was fired six days later, on July 8.
Bustos had been on a work-improvement program for more than a month because of complaints by Emily Hurt, a public defender enrolled in a Columbus State Community College Spanish 101 class, who reported that she’d heard Bustos translate semana as “month.” Semana means “week.”
After that, the public defender’s office began questioning Bustos’ ability.
There is no standard qualification process for interpreters in Ohio, according to a 2006 Supreme Court report. At that time, 32 percent of interpreters working in Ohio’s courts had received no related training.
The Supreme Court provides interpreter training and has trained more than 600 interpreters, said Romero. Bustos attended at least one training, according to court documents.