Plainfield Refusal Case Could Affect New Jeresy DWI Breathtest Instructions for Non-English Speakers

Recent comments by a New Jersey appeals court could shift the thinking behind English-only instructions provided by state and local police during DWI stops. As a New Jersey drunk driving defense lawyer, I have represented my share of non-native-English-speaking clients over the years, and I can tell you that many of these people are at a disadvantage when it comes to DWI enforcement.

The case in question stemmed from a driving while intoxicated arrest that occurred following a September 2007 traffic accident in Plainfield, N.J. A Hispanic man, German Marquez, had his license suspended for seven months after he apparently refused to submit to a breathalyzer test. According to court records, Marquez declined to take a breath test because he didn’t understand the 11-paragraph statement that a police officer read to him in English. After the statement was read out loud, the man responded, “No entiendo,” which means “I don’t understand” in Spanish.

The appeals court upheld the license suspension. In issuing its decision, the court stated that Marquez was made aware of the rules involving breath testing when he took the driver’s license exam in Spanish. It also reminded that the driving manual, written in Spanish, makes it clear that anyone who agrees to be licensed to drive in New Jersey is also giving advanced consent to a breath test.

However, the court also recommended that state authorities consider translating the instructions, which officers read to drunk driving suspects prior to administering a breath test, into Spanish and other widely spoken languages, or provide officers with a recording that can be played for those who don’t understand English.

Frankly, this is long overdue in an area of the country that has a multitude of foreign-speaking residents, many of whom do not speak English well, if at all. Certainly, a non-native-English-speaking person’s inability to comprehend a multi-paragraph statement read in English by an arresting officer under possibly traumatic circumstances is very understandable.

Marquez’ lawyer argued that if police had read the instructions to the man in Spanish, he would have more clearly understood his rights. The court disagreed with that argument, finding that “The right to due process does not automatically carry with it a right to have government documents translated into one’s native language.” This doesn’t sit very well with many attorneys who represent non-English speakers in this country, which may be why there will be another appeal attempt.

According to new reports, Mr. Marquez’ lawyer plans to appeal the ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The man’s attorney believes that his client would not have declined the test if he had understood what the police were asking of him. The goal, according to news reports, would be for New Jersey to discontinue the English-only practice.

NJ court upholds DWI despite language barrier, Philly.com, July 3, 2009