August 05, 2018

Non-English language Miranda tools promise major changes in criminal justice arena

Six New Orleans police officers and detectives are now carrying large laminated cards with pictorial representations that incorporate a recording of the Miranda warning in Spanish and have a Spanish-language video of the Miranda warning in their cars as well. The tools, demonstrated Saturday at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, developed from a unique collaboration with the ABA Center for Innovation and other ABA entities, New Orleans police, the ITT Institute of Design and law students in Chicago and New Orleans.

“I believe this will change the scope and way police departments across the country will operate,” said Commander Otha Sandifer, the New Orleans officer who is supervising the 45-day test.

Judy Martinez, a New Orleans-based attorney who will become ABA president-elect Tuesday at the end of the Annual Meeting, brokered the arrangement among the New Orleans Police Department, the Center for Innovation and the other groups. Since 2012, the NOPD is operating under a consent decree after a U.S. Department of Justice found patterns related to use of force, biased policing and other civil rights violations, and the test is being overseen by Sandifer, who heads the compliance division.

Sandifer explained Saturday that so far, those officers involved in the test have not faced a situation to use the tools. The pictorial tool operates like a Hallmark greeting card with a voice message. The video, in Spanish, is shown on a screen in the police car to those who have no or limited English proficiency and speak Spanish. The tools are designed to be used in view of a body camera, which will allow the entire delivery of the Miranda rights in Spanish to be recorded.

“Better to have it and not need it, rather than need it and not have it,” Sandifer said.

The goal of the initiative is to provide better access to justice and develop Miranda warnings in multiple languages for police officers to use across the country. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1966 in Miranda v. Arizona that police must inform criminal defendants that they have a right to an attorney and the right to remain silent during questioning, law enforcement authorities have made little progress in producing accurate and understood translations for people who are arrested and do not speak English. Also, faulty translations or an inability to effectively deliver accurate ones have led to arrests and convictions being thrown out of court.

The project is an outgrowth of ABA policies and reports in 2016 and 2017 that outlined the need for accurate and readily available Miranda warnings in Spanish and other languages. An estimated 12.7 million adults in the United States have limited English-language proficiency. Language tools, such as these, will give greater credibility to law enforcement and better message the meaning of the rule of law, advocates say.

“To be honest, we do not know where this is going to lead,” said Richard Pena, an Austin, Texas, attorney who chairs the ABA Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, which sponsored the 2016 policy resolution. “We don’t know the ultimate impact. We can say it has tremendous potential. It is no brainer.”

Jeremy Alexis, senior lecturer at IIT Institute of Design, and Moire Corcoran, a master of design student and design team leader, both described the unusual chemistry among designers who typically embrace failure, and law enforcement and lawyers, who are adverse to it. The current tool, they pointed out, developed through repeated iterations.

“Think of it as a slow funnel,” Alexis said, explaining the development process. He noted NOPD officers were shown numerous prototypes and “the feedback loop is so important.”

Corcoran acknowledged that at times there was a clash of cultures although nobody wanted to admit failure. Designers care more about the person than the process -- often paramount in law enforcement and the rule of law, she observed. “Design brings those voices together,” she continued. “We iterate and iterate until we get it right … Our training (compared to police) leads us to do very opposite things.”

Matthew Redle, prosecuting attorney in Sheridan County, Wyo., and immediate past chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section, raised the cooperation among the various stakeholders. His section sponsored the 2017 policy that urged law enforcement authorities to develop Miranda tools beyond Spanish, and it has also helped to fund the project.

Redle praised the “thoughtfulness that has been exercised” to develop a “product at the end of the day that is not going to create more problems than it necessarily solves.” He believes the current tools do that.

Moderator Melba Pearson of the ABA Center for Innovation and ACLU of Florida observed that the “civil rights impact of this project is immeasurable” to allow non-English speakers detained by law enforcement to better understand options they have that can impact their lives.

Although the tools are still being tested, Sandifer looked to be a true believer. He said he was headed to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., for a program with 85 deputy chiefs and that he will be touting the ABA initiative.

“We learn from our past mistakes,” Sandifer said of police departments, “and we learn best for each other.”