After he quarreled with his wife, Vincente Cruz was charged in District of Columbia Superior Court with simple assault and possession of a weapon.
For the next five months, according to court records, Cruz languished in the D.C. Jail simply because court officials and his court-appointed attorney could not speak Spanish and he could not speak English.
Because no official was able to learn his address and family ties--essential information for release pending trial--he was held on $1,000 bond, which he could not make. Because his attorney could not speak Spanish and did not visit him, he did not come up for a bond review that could have been granted others, according to court records.
When a social worker discovered his plight, Cruz was appointed another, Spanish-speaking attorney. Within two days he was out on bond. The charges against him eventually were dismissed.
The Cruz case is one of the worst examples, court officials say, of how foreign-born defendants and complainants, particularly the large number of Hispanics in the area, are subjected to unequal treatment in Washington's criminal justice system because they cannot speak English.
"A system has not been worked out to ensure that Hispanics are getting the same degree of protection as all others," said D.C. Superior Court judge Ricardo M. Urbina, the only Hispanic judge in the city. "No person should be denied what the Constitution guarantees simply because of a language difference or cultural difference." Urbina, supported by the D.C. Public Defender Service and several defense attorneys who represent a number of Hispanic defendants, is spearheading an effort to have translators on call five days a week to interpret court proceedings for non-English speakers, and have all forms, including those for complainants and those that inform defendants of their conditions of release, translated into Spanish.
There are about 18,000 Hispanics in the District of Columbia, according to the 1980 U.S. Census, and although there are no statistics on how many come through Superior Court, most of the 928 foreign-born defendants who have come to court this year are Hispanic, according to court officials.
There are at least two other cases similar to the 1980 Cruz case in which Hispanics were held unnecessarily in jail, according to court officials. In a more recent one, a defendant was held five months in 1982 because his non-Spanish speaking attorney could not communicate well enough with the man's relatives to raise the $200 bond. When a Spanish-speaking attorney, Samuel Delgado, was appointed he was able in a week to raise the money and free the man. "He was five months in jail needlessly," said Delgado.
Beyond these instances, Urbina and others say they are concerned about the following:
* There are no translators present at bond hearings, a defendant's first stop in the court system, to interpret the proceedings. As a result a defendant may not understand how much bond he needs to post, the nature of the charges against him and what happens next.
"Sometimes a defendant doesn't even know his bond. He might not even know he's supposed to come back to court on a certain date," said public defender Mark Carlin. "For all he knows, he might have just had his trial, been found not guilty and let go."
* The court will currently only provide translators at trials for defendants in felony and serious misdemeanor cases. No translators are provided at trials in traffic cases and in juvenile court. Sometimes Spanish-speaking police officers are pressed into service as translators, but defense attorneys claim they are biased toward the prosecution.
* There are no Spanish-speaking probation officers to prepare presentence reports for judges. These reports assess, among other things, whether a convicted person should receive a prison sentence or probation.
"It's an absolutely intolerable situation," Urbina said. "In most instances, the presentence report is the single-most weighted piece of information that the court reviews" in sentencing a defendant.
* Hispanics stand less of a chance of being released to a third-party custody since there is only one agency, Andromeda, that provides Spanish-speaking third-party custodians. However, Andromeda takes only 10 defendants a year.
Hispanics who want to complain about child abuse, battered wives, paternity or child custody claims are sometimes thwarted because the court forms are in English.
* The translations that are made need to be more carefully screened for accuracy. Until recently, Urbina said, the Spanish translation of the Miranda rights that D.C. police had been using to inform Spanish-speaking suspects of their rights was not an accurate translation of the English version. The previous Spanish translation failed to inform suspects that they have the right to stop answering questions posed to them by police until they have spoken to an attorney.
Urbina said that with the support of Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I, court administrators have begun to allocate more resources for the Spanish-speaking defendant. Pretrial services, which interviews defendants before bond hearings, has hired more personnel who can speak Spanish, and forms in the landlord-tenant and small claims courts have already been translated into Spanish. Urbina says he and Judge Elias Rodriguez of the Civil Aeronautics Board have checked all the translations for legal accuracy. Also, the probation office is considering hiring a Spanish-speaking officer to help with presentence reports.
But much more needs to be done, Urbina and the others say.
"We are not trying to give Hispanics more than what they deserve," Urbina said. "We just want to bring parity into the criminal justice system where Hispanics are concerned."