Where Police Intercept Defendant’s Phone Calls in Foreign Language, Whose Translation is Used in Court?

In some of the bigger trafficking in drugs and other drug cases, one major component of the state’s case may be phone calls of the defendant that were intercepted and recorded. These phone calls intercepted without the defendant’s knowledge are often critical pieces of evidence as they may involve the defendant discussing drug deals in his/her own voice, or at least discussing logistical issues with other co-defendants or confidential informants.

When the intercepted phone calls are in English, the state will normally just play the recordings at the trial for the jury to hear and draw their own conclusions as to what was said and what was meant on the calls. How is that information conveyed to a jury when the phone calls are in another language?

In a recent trafficking in heroin case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the police had recorded many phone calls involving the defendant and his co-conspirators where various drug transactions were discussed. The police used their detectives to transcribe the calls and used those transcripts their police officers prepared as evidence of the phone calls at the trial. The criminal defense lawyer objected to using the police officers’ transcriptions of the phone calls arguing that they were not objective. As one might expect, transcripts of phone calls involving the defendant with his co-conspirators can be very damaging evidence at a trafficking trial. If the police officer, who obviously believes the defendant to be a drug trafficker, interprets some vague aspects of the recordings against the defendant, it could be the difference between a conviction and an acquittal. Many of these recordings are of good quality, but some are not and even the good ones will have periods where it is difficult to hear what is being said.

In this case, the judge allowed the Spanish speaking police officers to testify to their interpretation of the recorded calls. The police witnesses testified under oath as to their ability to translate the recordings and the accuracy of the translations. It was also important that the criminal defense lawyer was given a copy of the recordings and the police transcriptions. If the criminal defense attorney had an issue with any of the transcriptions, he/she could hire his/her own translator and/or question the police officer about the translations at trial.

The bottom line is that there does not need to be one official translation of recordings in a different language for a criminal case. The police, if they have the experience and familiarity with the language, can offer their own translation at the trial. The criminal defense lawyer has a right to review that translation and either challenge it before the trial, challenge it at the trial and/or offer their own qualified translation.

Because recordings in a drug case involving the defendant are often so critical to a case, it is very important that the criminal defense lawyer and the defendant go over the recordings and the transcripts of them to make sure they are accurate, rather than trust law enforcement’s interpretation. If they are not, there are methods to address questionable transcriptions in court.

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