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Classic Problem

Published January 6, 2016 by Anne

Tennessee just experienced a problem so classic, you’d think it would have been solved long ago.

To sum it up: a woman was charged with child abuse. She plead guilty to attempted aggravated child neglect, and received probation. The probationer went for over a year without incident, complying with all terms. Then, one fine day at the probation office, she was arrested and sent to federal prison.

See Refugee’s Rare Dialect Exposes Legal System’s Shortcomings, Stacey Barchenger, The Tennessean (January 4, 2016).

What went wrong?

  • The woman is a refugee from Myanmar. Her native language, Matu Chin, is spoken by a very small population. Thus, the state administrative office of courts, which runs the interpreter program, provided no interpreter.
  • The usual procedure when dealing with rare languages is to utilize a commercial service, such as  Language Line, as a last resort. Ethics and professionalism must be taken into account. See, e.g., Wisconsin’s rule, which balances theory and practice quite well. It appears that, upon the reopening of the case, the defendant is being provided with this type of service.
  • Here, the court committed the common mistake of relying on an amateur interpreter. In this case, the person was a trusted pastor. (Note to family and friends: if a court asks you to interpret for a defendant with limited English proficiency, please respectfully request that they find one who is certified by the state court.)
  • Defendant was never informed that her plea could lead to deportation. Such information is required by Padilla.
  • It does not appear that cultural differences were taken into account. Common punishments in one country may not be the norm here (and vice versa). While we need not allow children to suffer in the name of diversity, we should educate parents who are unfamiliar with the law. Here, at least one public defender does reach out to refugees and other immigrants to explain cultural and legal norms.

Hopefully, this case is a lesson for courts in what not to do, and how to improve. The woman’s case is being reopened. Meanwhile, we hope to never see another version of this classic case.