Trials and Foreign Language Interpretation (Part 1)

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On August 15, 2023, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Hudson County case of State v. Oscar Juracan-Juracan. The principal issue before the Court concerned whether the defendant was entitled to in-person as opposed to remote interpreting services during his trial.

Justice Pierre-Louis, my Rutgers Law classmate, wrote for the Court in relevant part. The Court considers a question of first impression — whether a criminal defendant must be provided in-person interpreting services, rather than video remote interpreting (VRI) services, at his jury trial. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court announced amendments to the New Jersey Judiciary’s Language Access Plan (LAP) and expanded the circumstances in which remote interpreting services may be used. Prior to the update, VRI was allowed only for “emergent matters” or “short non-emergent matters of 30 minutes or less.” The 2022 LAP now allows VRI for both “emergent and routine proceedings,” subject to judicial discretion.

In 2019, defendant Oscar R. Juracan-Juracan, a native speaker of Kaqchikel — a language spoken by approximately 450,000 people worldwide — was charged with several offenses related to an alleged sexual assault. During pre-trial proceedings, he requested a Kaqchikel interpreter and one was provided. The interpreter, however, resided on the West Coast, so he appeared remotely. Additionally, the Kaqchikel interpreter did not speak English, only Kaqchikel and Spanish, so a second interpreter was required to translate to and from Spanish and English. After the court advised counsel that the Kaqchikel interpreter would continue to participate virtually during the jury trial, defendant moved for in-person interpretation services. During the motion hearing, the Kaqchikel interpreter expressed concerns about his ability to provide interpretation services remotely during the trial. The trial court denied defendant’s motion, advising the Kaqchikel interpreter that the court would give him “as much time as you need, understanding the complexities, not only of interpretations, interpreting through two individuals, and also virtually.” The trial court reasoned that proceeding with VRI during the trial was “what’s financially feasible, what’s fair, what’s just.” The Appellate Division denied defendant’s motion for leave to appeal in light of the VRI policy change. The Court granted leave to appeal. 253 N.J. 283 (2023).

The cynical view of this scenario is that the defendant was intentionally making things difficult for the Court in an effort to delay his trial. Or, he may have just hoped to create an issue that could help on appeal. Logic dictates that most people who speak Kaqchikel would also understand Spanish since Kaqchikel is a language rooted in the Mayan people of modern day Guatemala.