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Lost in translation

A defendant who spoke no English and relied on a telephone translation to explain the felony charges against him has been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.

Harrisonburg U.S. District Court Judge Michael F. Urbanski allowed Raul Tronco-Ramirez to withdraw his guilty plea to gun and drug charges after reviewing a transcript that revealed “numerous communication difficulties.”

“Time and again, the record reflects problems relating to the ability of the court, the interpreter and the defendant to hear and understand one another,” Urbanski wrote in his Aug. 29 opinion in U.S. v. Tronco-Ramirez.

The defendant initially attempted to enter a guilty plea without a plea hearing, but the court stopped the plea hearing when defendant communicated that he believed the charges were all lies. Two days later, he faced a different federal prosecutor, and entered his guilty plea.

Urbanski said he was concerned about “the numerous interpreting problems, inaudible words, and off the record discussions reflected in the hearing transcript.”

The “judge, the interpreter, court reporter and defendant all had difficulty understanding one another,” Urbanski said.

The judge pointed to another strong clue that the guilty plea was involuntary.

It simply “makes no sense for Tronco-Ramirez to have rejected a plea agreement providing for a sentence of 35 years and then plead straight up to charges carrying a mandatory minimum of 40 years.”

The use of interpreters is on the rise, primarily with Spanish speakers. The federal district courts reported a 13.8 percent increase in fiscal year 2010 in the number of events – in civil and criminal matters – that required the use of interpreters.
By Deborah Elkins

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