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FL: Interpreters required to make justice system work

Monday, December 21, 2009

AVON PARK - Sgt. Sally Vega's ability to speak Spanish makes her an asset to the Avon Park Police Department, whether in gaining the confidence of suspects who can't speak English or catching those who only pretend that they don't.

"That's the upper hand on being Spanish," Vega said.

It always depends on the circumstances and the case, but Vega has different techniques or tricks to find out whether a Hispanic suspect truly can't speak English or if they're faking it.

Making a comment about going to jail will usually get the truth to come out, she said.

Just a few weeks ago, Vega was on a domestic violence call where the suspect claimed not to speak English despite saying he'd lived in Avon Park all his life.

"You're not going to tell me you don't (speak English)," Vega said was her response. "(He said), 'Oh, I know. I just act like I don't know.'"

Vega's second language also helps her gain the trust of those reluctant to talk to officers because of a language barrier. This is especially true with migrant workers, some of whom have a habit of overdrinking.

"Most of them are victims of robbery," Vega said. "They target them easily because they're drunk. They walk the streets drunk. They easily become targets."

Since many of the migrant workers are in the country illegally, they are less likely to report the crime, much less talk to a police officer.

"They fear cops and you have to kind of gain their confidence," Vega said. "Most of them fear that we're going to deport them."

The barrier is there

The 2000 census found that of Highlands County's approximately 87,366 residents, 12.1 percent were Hispanic or Latino.

Almost 10 years later, and with a population of 100,000, that percentage is certain to go up when the next census is taken.

Language barriers can be there in every facet of everyday life, but it becomes a whole new challenge in the justice system.

Vega gets no extra perks for going out and assisting officers who can't talk to witnesses or suspects because they don't understand English. The only benefits are putting those individuals more at ease and helping out the agency.

Once a non-English speaking suspect moves into the court system, they require the services of a court interpreter to understand all that is happening.

Toni Godinez oversees six interpreters for the 10th judicial circuit, which encompasses Highlands, Hardee and Polk counties.

Spanish is the primary language for which interpreters are needed, but they also cover Chinese, Russian, Korea, Hmong, Creole and sign language, according to Godinez.

For all of 2008, 13,000 cases in the 10th circuit required a court interpreter. From January through October of this year, that figure stands at 10,084, Godinez said.

In Highlands County during the month of November, 97 cases needed the assistance of a Spanish-speaking interpreter.

A voice for the lost

Denise Wilcox has been the court interpreter for Highlands County since August and averages about 100 cases a month where her services are required.

Her duties are simple - translate verbatim everything the attorneys and judge are saying in that courtroom, and nothing more.

In fact, she is ethically bound not to offer any legal advice and just stick to straight interpreting.

"A lot of times, we've come across attorney(s) handing you a plea agreement and saying, 'Can you please explain this to my client?' Wilcox said. "What we have to do is explain to the attorney, 'No, you need to read it to your client or explain it to your client and I'll be more than glad to interpret.'

"We don't give out any advice, because we're not trained. We're not attorneys."

Wilcox's expertise isn't used beyond the courtroom. If the attorney wants to have an office meeting with his or her client, they'll have to hire a freelance interpreter.

When she is doing her job, Wilcox is interpreting for people who not only don't understand the English language, but also don't have much formal education or exposure to the U.S. judicial system.

"A lot of times you will have the translation for a certain type of proceeding or for something that needs to be done, but it's not anything that they're familiar with," Wilcox said.

One such issue is not understanding the concept of probation, despite there being a Spanish word for it. Wilcox says it is up to the interpreter to alert the attorney or judge if the defendant is having trouble grasping the concept.

"It's kind of a gray line because it's also up to the judges and the attorneys to catch on when something's not clicking," she said.

Highlands County Circuit Judge Peter Estrada is required by the Florida Supreme Court to ask defendants during plea agreements if there is any DNA evidence they are aware of that would exonerate them of the crime they are pleading to.

That question generally causes confusion amongst Spanish-speaking defendants.

"It's common among most defendants," Estrada said. "It happens all the time when I ask about DNA evidence. We try to simplify that a little bit."

One way to try and make the question easier is explain to defendants - both Spanish and English-speaking - that DNA evidence is a major component of the popular television show "CSI," Estrada said

Bridging the gap

If it's migrant worker season, Vega could get called out every day to help her fellow officers with interpretation.

"It's a lot easier," Vega said. "It makes people more at ease.

Wilcox is on call 24 hours a day and doing the job of interpreting can be taxing, especially if a case with a language barrier goes to trial, where two interpreters are needed to relieve each other every half an hour.

Still, it is a job she is proud to do.

"We have no interest in the outcome of the case, whether it's a guilty finding or a not guilty, but it is very rewarding in the sense that you're able to bridge that gap," Wilcox said.

Highlands Today reporter Brad Dickerson can be reached at 863-386-5838 or

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