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Issues re: translation of confession by detective didn’t render confession involuntary

Francisco Carrion v. Kim Butler, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 14-3241, 2016 WL 4537374, 8/31/16

Carrion’s habeas petition made the novel claim that his confession was involuntary because of the fact it was translated by the investigating detective. You won’t be surprised to learn that the federal courts rejected his claim.

At the time he was interrogated about the home invasion and murder of a woman living in his apartment complex, Carrion was a 19-year-old immigrant from Mexico who spoke almost no English. A Spanish-speaking detective interviewed him in Spanish, and then acted as translator when a prosecutor questioned Carrion. The second interview was recorded, and at trial Carrion presented testimony from a certified translator that took issue with some of the detective’s translations of Carrion’s answers during the second interview. (Slip op. at 2-9).

Carrion’s claim that the detective’s translation made the interrogation “coercive” can’t get past the governing legal standard—namely, that a confession is involuntary if it is the product of coercive police activity, which is assessed based on the totality of the circumstances. (Slip op. at 21-22).

Mr. Carrion’s coercion argument is a rather novel one. A voluntariness inquiry typically requires that we consider a combination of factors. But Mr. Carrion simply contends that when an interrogation is conducted through a translator, due process requires that the translator “be (1) neutral and independent and (2) fully capable of interpreting exactly both the questions posed and the answers given.” Because Detective Delgadillo was not neutral or capable, Mr. Carrion continues, the incriminating statements were necessarily coerced and inadmissible.

Our cases provide no support for the bright line constitutional requirement that Mr. Carrion proposes. The authorities upon which he relies, treatises, state ethics codes, state case law, and agency guidelines, may well suggest the best practice. But our task is decidedly more narrow. Although these sources may be of some help in our inquiry, the basic question before us is not whether the officers in this case adhered to best practices but “whether the circumstances surrounding [Mr. Carrion’s] confession would have interfered with his free and deliberate choice of whether to confess.” Johnson v. Pollard, 559 F.3d 746, 753 (7th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). To be sure, evidence that Detective Delgadillo, in acting as translator, manipulated or mistranslated the prosecutor’s questions or Mr. Carrion’s answers is relevant to the extent that it demonstrates coercive conduct. In the end, however, the ultimate question is whether, under the totality of the circumstances, Mr. Carrion was deprived of that “free and deliberate choice.” Id.

(Slip op. at 22-23 (footnotes omitted)). And in any event, the detective’s mistranslations were “innocuous.” (Slip op. at 24-28).

Carrion also raised a sufficiency challenge which the court rejects in a fact-specific discussion. (Slip op. at 10-12, 17-21). And, this being a federal habeas case, there are all manner of procedural hurdles for Carrion to clear before his claims can be considered on the merits; the court mercifully avoids resolving those questions and goes directly to the merits. (Slip op. at 15-16).

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