In Print: Volume 86: Number 2
Lost In Interpretation: The Problem Of Plea Bargains And Court Interpretation For Non-English-Speaking Defendants
By Annabel R. Chang
86 Wash. U. L. Rev. 445 (2008)
On March 26, 1991, Mr. Irving Chin pled guilty to charges arising from an alleged illegal gambling operation. Yet, Chin pled guilty without realizing that he would be “regarded as a criminal.” His co-defendant, Mr. Chi Chak Leung, similarly pled guilty to related charges despite consistently asserting that his only role in the gambling operation was cashing chips. Since neither Chin nor Leung spoke English and their court interpreters failed to convey the serious consequences of a guilty plea, both men unwittingly waived away fundamental constitutional rights in a language they did not understand. Consequently, Chin and Leung filed a motion to withdraw their guilty pleas due to cultural and language barriers.Upon evaluating both men’s motions to withdraw their pleas, a United States district court found that the two defendants faced “linguistic and cultural difficulties” during the plea bargaining process. When the court evaluated Leung’s responses during the plea colloquy, it determined that Leung “lack[ed] . . . an adequate understanding . . . of the nature of the charges he was pleading to.” In fact, Leung informed the court that he would not have agreed to the plea bargain “even with a gun to his head” if he had understood the consequences of the guilty plea. The court noted that Chin did not even understand particular words involved in the plea bargain. As a result, the Leung court allowed both Leung and Chin to withdraw their guilty pleas.
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