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State v. Rodriguez

May 9, 1996

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, COMPLAINANT-RESPONDENT,
v.
RUDIS RODRIGUEZ, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Bayonne Municipal Court.

Approved for Publication August 6, 1996.

J.l. Fuentes, J.s.c.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes

OPINION

J.L. FUENTES, J.S.C.

This case explores the limits of a non-English-speaking municipal court defendant's right to an interpreter. Appellant, a Spanish-speaker, was tried and convicted in Bayonne Municipal Court of driving while under the influence of alcohol (N.J.S.A. 39:4-50) and leaving the scene of an accident (N.J.S.A. 39:4-129). While the trial encompassed hearings on three separate dates, appellant was not provided with a Spanish-language court interpreter for at least one of the sessions. The issue to be decided is when, and under what circumstances, does a municipal court defendant have the right to a court interpreter?

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In this case, appellant, Rudis Rodriguez, was arrested in Bayonne, New Jersey, on July 17, 1993, and charged with driving while under the influence of alcohol (N.J.S.A. 39:4-50) and leaving the scene of an accident (N.J.S.A. 39:4-129). After a lengthy trial spanning three dates (December 15 and 23, 1993; April 20, 1994), appellant was found guilty of both charges by the Bayonne Municipal Court on April 20, 1994. He was fined a total of $494; his driver's license was suspended for six months; and he was ordered to attend two six-hour sessions at the county Intoxicated Driver Resource Center. Appellant's initial appeal to the Law Division was denied, but in a subsequent appeal the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case back to the Law Division for a hearing de novo on the record below. See R. 3:23-8(a); see State v. Johnson 42 N.J. 146, 157, 199 A.2d 809 (1964). Accordingly, this court conducted a hearing on March 14, 1996.

II. FINDINGS OF FACT

The court finds that at approximately 11:30 p.m. on July 17, 1993, a white car struck the right front area of Bayonne Police Officer Mike Michaels' green Dodge Intrepid when Officer Michaels was stopped at a traffic signal at the intersection of 19th Street and Avenue C in Bayonne. Officer Michaels, who was off-duty at the time, pursued the white car and overtook it a short time later as it was being parked. Bayonne Police Officers Keith Striffolino and Thomas Napier responded to the scene as back-up. Officer Michaels spotted appellant exiting from the driver's side of the white car after it was parked. After a brief disagreement as to whether or not appellant would surrender his car keys, he was arrested.

The court finds that Rodriguez, a native Spanish-speaker, understood very little of what the police officers said to him that night, and, in fact, understands and speaks very little English in general. Officer Striffolino admitted on cross-examination that appellant "has a serious language problem," and one week later appellant returned to the police station with an interpreter to give a statement regarding the events of the seventeenth. The record does not indicate whether Rodriguez was afforded a court interpreter for the initial hearing (December 15, 1993) before the municipal court; however, there was no court interpreter for the second hearing (December 22, 1993). Instead, Rodriguez' attorney waived his client's right to a court interpreter, and a bilingual defense witness was permitted to interpret for Rodriguez. Finally, Rodriguez was provided with a Spanish-language court interpreter for at least a portion of the third and final hearing (April 20, 1994).

III. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. Any consideration of the right to an interpreter must begin with an examination of the underpinnings of that right. As a baseline, both federal and New Jersey courts have grounded a criminal defendant's right to an interpreter in the confrontation and assistance of counsel clauses of the federal and state constitutions. United States ex rel. Negron v. State of New York, 434 F. 2d 386 (2d Cir. 1970) *fn1; United States v. Mosquera, 816 F. Supp. 168, 172-73 (E.D.N.Y. 1993); State v. Kounelis, 258 N.J. Super. 420, 426-27, 609 A.2d 1310 (App. Div. 1992), cert. denied, 133 N.J. 429, 627 A.2d 1136 (1993) (citing State v. Linares 192 N.J. Super. 391, 393-94, 470 A.2d 39 (Law Div. 1983); see U.S. Const. amend. VI; see N.J. Const. art. I, P 10. The right to an interpreter was deemed crucial to a non-English-speaking defendant's ability to participate in his own defense, and all rights emanating from this, such as the right to counsel and the right to cross-examine witnesses, would be eviscerated without the defendant's complete understanding of the case against him. E.g., Mosquera, 816 F. Supp. at 174-76 *fn2; Kounelis, 258 N.J. Super. at 426-27.

New Jersey courts have not extended the right to an interpreter beyond the class of criminal defendants. See Kounelis, 258 N.J. Super. at 426-28. Under New Jersey law, crimes are offenses for which a sentence of greater than six months imprisonment is authorized. N.J.S.A. 2C:1-4(a). Disorderly persons offenses, on the other hand, contemplate up to six months of jail time and "are not crimes within the meaning of . . . [New Jersey's] Constitution." N.J.S.A. 2C:1-4(b). Generally, criminal cases are tried in the Law Division of the Superior Court. E.g., State v. Karaarslan, 262 N.J. Super. 123, 125 (Law Div. 1993). Driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) is not characterized as a crime in New Jersey but rather a serious traffic offense." State v. Cusick 110 N.J. Super. ...


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