In a recent decision handed down by the SJC, the court denied a defendant’s motion for a new trial on the grounds that the defendant failed to prove his plea proceedings were irregular. Interestingly enough, the defendant did not speak English. In fact, he claimed he was never given the opportunity to communicate with an interpreter in order to understand the implications of his plea.
The defendant and his mother are Cambodian refugees and native Khmai speakers who came to the United States when the defendant was four years old. Ten years after moving to the United States, when the defendant was fourteen, he was charged with assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon and indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of fourteen. The Juvenile Court judge held that the defendant admitted sufficient facts to charge him with the crime and placed him on probation, which he later violated landing him in the Department of Youth Services.
The presence or absence of an interpreter during the defendant’s plea colloquy is not clear. What is clear is that the docket showed that an interpreter was ordered for the defendant’s court date. Whether one was present, however, is disputed.
Some fourteen years later, the defendant sought to vacate his pleas on numerous grounds, including: (1) that no interpreter had been present at his plea hearing, (2) that he did not understand that he was admitting to a sexual offense, (3) that he did not know what a trial was, and (4) that he did not speak to an attorney until the day of his plea. After a hearing conducted by the SAME Juvenile Court judge, the defendant’s motion was denied. The judge reasoned that the law requires an interpreter be scheduled when necessary, but if the interpreter does not show, proceedings may continue. Further, that the defendant failed to prove that there was a lack of understanding or knowledge caused by the interpreter’s absence when he entered his plea.
The law states that a defendant may withdraw a guilty plea where the plea was not made freely and voluntarily. Further, when accepting a plea, judges must be “satisfied that the plea is voluntary and that the defendant understands the nature of the charges.” Commonwealth v. Quinones, 414 Mass. 423, 431 (1993). Finally, when dealing with juveniles, that “juveniles frequently lack the capacity to appreciate the consequences of their actions and [the law] seeks to protect them from the possible consequences of their immaturity.” Commonwealth v. A Juvenile, 389 Mass. 128, 135 (1983).
The SJC stated that the Juvenile Court judge recognized that the defendant did not speak English and correctly ordered an interpreter. Although the interpreter may not have been present, the SJC concluded that the judge acted within the bounds of the law when she allowed the proceeding to continue, stating that the purpose of continuing was to ensure the defendant understood “court proceedings.” They held that the Juvenile Court judge did not abuse her discretion and denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial.
How this could be, I’ll never understand. Of course the fact that the defendant is finally challenging his plea fourteen years after the fact is suspicious. Who knows though, it is entirely possible that at twenty-eight years old, a criminal record is adversely affecting the defendant for the first time and he wants to do something about it. The fact that a non-English speaking juvenile defendant was allowed to plead guilty without having the repercussions of that action explained to him in a language he could understand seems wrong though, doesn’t it?
Add that to the fact that this judge was allowed to ignore the absence of an interpreter, with the stated purpose of this being “to ensure the defendant understood court proceedings,” and we enter the realm of mind blowing. HOW WOULD CONTINUING THE PROCEEDING WITHOUT A TRANSLATER ENSURE THAT THE DEFENDANT UNDERSTOOD THE COURT PROCEEDING??? It just doesn’t make sense. The defendant doesn’t understand English, and we have no translator? Lets continue, to make sure he understands . . .
I know that this case is unique because it was not challenged for many years after it was decided. This alone, however, is not a good reason to rule against the challenging party.
We have to do a better job at getting these cases right. If this case was decided consistent with the law as it is now, and it looks like it was, we need to look at changing the law. In my opinion, a non-English speaking individual should never be permitted to enter a plea that adversely affects him without being fully aware of the consequences of that action. To be fully aware is difficult to achieve. As difficult as it is normally, it might be impossible under the circumstances of this case. After reading and thinking about this case, my opinion is that the court missed one here.