The Guide for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People
by The National Association of the Deaf
from Chapter Nine: The Legal System
Securing qualified interpreters in law enforcement and court environments is critical. In its analysis to both the Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, the Justice Department notes that recipients of federal funds and state and local governments (including court systems and the police) must use qualified interpreters to ensure a defendant is advised of his or her rights and the trial is deemed fair. The Justice Department has not required interpreters to be certified under Section 504 and the ADA, due to the difficulty in some areas of the nation to secure certified interpreters. However, it is doubtful that any individual who has not been formally trained or educated as an interpreter can perform the functions of an interpreter in this type of setting.
The mere existence of a federal or state law providing interpreters is no guarantee that they are actually provided and that they function appropriately. Some police departments may attempt to use a staff member "who knows sign language" to interpret. However, a person who can only fingerspell or a person who has taken a class or two in sign language will not be qualified. It is impossible for a person with such limited sign language to communicate the important rights that are at stake.
In Virginia, where state law requires the appointment of qualified interpreters, an unskilled and uncertified interpreter was provided to a deaf rape victim testifying at a preliminary hearing. Although the interpreter told the court that he was not skilled at reading sign language, the judge proceeded with the hearing. When the prosecutor asked the victim what had happened, she gave the sign for "forced intercourse." The interpreter said that her reply was "made love," an altogether different sign and certainly a different concept. The legal effect of the interpreter's mistake was devastating. Later, when she answered, "blouse," to the prosecutor's question of what she was wearing, the interpreter told the court, "short blouse," creating the impression that she had dressed provocatively. A better interpreter was provided at the trial before the jury.
Effective enforcement of the right to a qualified interpreter is extremely important. It will require a continuing effort to raise the awareness of judicial and administrative judges and court clerks about relevant laws and the communication patterns of deaf people.