Ponce v. Indiana – Defendant Must Understand Terms of Plea When Waiving Rights

The U.S. is an ethnically, racially and culturally diverse nation. It is a principle that must be respected and upheld in all regards of our country, in the justice system especially.

Increasingly, the courts are becoming more sensitive to what non-native English defendants comprehend throughout court proceedings. A recent report indicated Alabama had the second-fastest growing Hispanic population in the country, expanding by 145 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

It's not enough that a defendant simply understand English. In order for depositions, testimony, plea agreements and the like to be valid, Birmingham drug defense attorneys recognize defendants must fully comprehend what is being said to them and what they are saying.

When that does not happen, the courts must act appropriately to ensure justice is meted out fairly. That's what happened in the recent case of Ponce v. Indiana. Although this is an out-of-state drug case, similar legal principles are applicable.

According to court records, the defendant was arrested in 1999 for delivery of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school, which a Class A, or highest class, of felony. At his guilty plea hearing, he requested an interpreter, which was provided. Through his interpreter, he was then told of his Boykin rights.

This is based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Boykin v. Alabama, in which the court declared for the record that a guilty plea must show the defendant voluntarily and understandingly waives his right to trial.

He was asked if he wanted to plead guilty, and he agreed. He was sentenced to prison.

Ten years passed.

He then filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief (later amended by an attorney) asserting his plea was not intelligently and voluntarily entered because the court-appointed interpreter failed to accurately translate his rights.

The trial court rejected his argument. The appellate court affirmed, although it did call the advisement of the interpreter “defective.” He appealed to the state supreme court.

The high court reversed.

In doing so, the court first established the defendant had very little grasp of the English language, both at the time of the arrest and even a decade later, at the time he brought his petition for review.

Secondly, justices looked more closely at the English-to-Spanish translations as given to the defendant. Spanish-speaking witnesses were called to analyze the English and Spanish transcripts of what was said.

In one instance, the judge told the defendant, “You have the right to a public and speedy trial by jury.”

However, the translator told the defendant, “You have the right to another judging speedier, Ok?”

In another instance, the judge advised the defendant, “You have the right to face all witnesses against you, and to see, hear, question and cross-examine these witnesses.”

The translator explained it to the defendant this way: “You have the right to see those who have the witnesses and to ask if that's all right (unintelligible).”

And finally, in another case, the judge told the defendant, “You cannot be compelled to make any statement or testify against yourself at any hearing or trial, but you may remain silent.”

The interpreter, however, told the defendant this: “And until that date, you cannot make other oaths against yourself, but you can remain silent.”

Statements like these represent basic, core rights of our criminal justice system. They must be clearly and fully understood, especially for a defendant facing a drug charge that could potentially carry decades behind bars. Before accepting such a burden, contact an experienced drug defense attorney who will ensure you are aggressively defended and fully aware during the proceedings.

If you have been arrested in Birmingham on drug charges, contact Eversole Law LLC, Alabama Drug Crime Attorney, at (866) 831-5292.