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Florida Advocates: Court language barriers persist despite law

Monday, April 05, 2010

DELAND -- When Florida legislators passed a law four years ago requiring court interpreters to be certified, advocates hailed it as a huge step for non-English speakers to access justice in the courtroom.

But court and independent interpreters, as well as advocates, now say the law only put in place a mechanism for the certification of interpreters with no guarantee circuit courts will use them.

"The state law recognizes that certified interpreters are necessary," said Agustin De La Mora, president of the Florida Institute of Interpretation and Translation.

The law was passed a year after a botched interpretation during a criminal hearing in DeLand mistakenly sent a man to prison for 15 years. That case showed the local 7th Judicial Circuit was using unqualified interpreters. The new law allowed the Supreme Court to set minimum standards and procedures for certification, discipline and training of court interpreters.

De La Mora, the former coordinator of the Interpreters Unit at the 9th Judicial Circuit in Orlando, is now an independent interpreter.

"The problem with it is that it's not recognizing the need to enforce the use of certified interpreters."

The Volusia case involved Marianne Verruno, a court interpreter who botched a case for Juan Ramon Alfonzo, a Spanish-speaking Cuban.

In December 2005, Circuit Judge William Parsons reversed Alfonzo's 15-year prison term and 15-year probation after a federally certified interpreter said Verruno, who was not fluent in Spanish, did not properly interpret for Alfonzo during his plea hearing in October 2004.

Alfonzo thought he pleaded no contest to stealing a toolbox and was shocked to discover he was being sent to prison for stealing a dump truck.

Although the law set up a process to have speakers of foreign languages certified, it has not entirely eliminated the chances that situations like Verruno's could arise again, De La Mora said.

"The law does not impose restrictions or demand that circuit courts use certified interpreters," De La Mora said.

The fear that another Alfonzo case is just waiting to happen stems from the fact that some circuits, like the 20th in Fort Myers, still have contracts with agencies that provide noncertified interpreters, sources familiar with the situation say.

Claudia Villalba, a federally certified interpreter and supervisor of the local Interpreters Unit, said the law put in place a mechanism that creates two levels of interpreters.

"Under the new rule a person can take a two-day orientation and a written exam to become a duly qualified interpreter. But there is no guarantee that the person passing the written exam can interpret in a court of law," Villalba said.

Certified interpreters are required by the new law to pay a $200 fee every two years and be subjected to training and disciplinary action, Villalba said. Duly qualified interpreters are not and only have to pass the test, she said.

Certified interpreters take an oral exam and participate in a simulated court situation to test interpreting skills, Villalba said.

"The biggest flaw with the certification law is that besides the orientation and written exam, there is nothing set to measure the person's ability in the foreign language, let alone in interpreting skills," Villalba said.

But that shortcoming is not affecting the 7th Circuit because Villalba screens freelance interpreters used in court. She also trains those interested in becoming court interpreters, she said.

"I think the new rules have been effective ... in setting a professional standard for individuals who serve as interpreters in court proceedings," said Volusia courts administrator Mark Weinberg.

Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrota, of the 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa and chair of the Board of Certification, did not return a call seeking comment.

There are only 90 certified interpreters in Florida and nearly 300 who are not. If the law would force circuit courts to use certified interpreters, all these people will go for the certification because they know the courts will use them, De La Mora said.

"In Orange County, when I was the coordinator there, six of us handled 18,000 cases a year," De La Mora said. "Imagine what 300 certified interpreters would do."

Certified interpreters also face competition in the job market from noncertified interpreters who work cheaper because they do not have to adhere to the requirements of the new law. They do not pay fees, and do not face disciplinary measures, De La Mora said.

That increases the chances of justice eluding non-English speakers, De La Mora said.

"Having an interpreter is not a language right," De La Mora said. "It's an access right to the court. If you cannot understand or communicate with the courts then you have no access to justice."

De La Mora said there is not much support for enforcement because the service is for non-English speakers.

"It's possible that it's because it has to do with people who don't speak English," De La Mora said. "There is not as much desire to help because, 'Who cares?' "

Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, who sponsored the bill that became law in 2006, did not return calls or an e-mail sent to him seeking comments.

"I would like to see legislators take the law and give it teeth," De La Mora said, "To give it some form that would force courts to use certified interpreters."

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