July 13, 2010
No English Defense Works In N.J. DUI Case
New Jersey drunken drivers who don’t understand a police officer’s English commands are immune from prosecution thanks to a state Supreme Court ruling, which this week overturned three separate court decisions to side with a Spanish-speaking drug dealer.
The case involves a suspected illegal immigrant (German Marquez) arrested for driving drunk in 2007 after rear-ending a car in Plainfield. Marquez appeared intoxicated and the police officer on the scene smelled alcohol on his breath. For decades New Jersey law has required all drivers operating a vehicle on public roads to consent to a breath test. Those who refuse automatically get prosecuted for not complying.
Marquez, who is currently in jail for an unrelated drug conviction, claimed that he did not understand the arresting officer’s instruction that the breath test is legally required because he speaks only Spanish. No state, including New Jersey, requires a translation of the consequences of refusing to take an alcohol breath test. That’s why the 27-year-old drug dealer, who had a valid New Jersey drivers’ license, got convicted in Plainfield Municipal Court and lost two appeals before the state’s High Court delivered a victory this week.
In its 4-3 ruling, New Jersey’s Supreme Court said that the police officer’s efforts to communicate the state’s mandatory breath test in English failed to effectively inform Marquez in the same fashion that English speakers would be informed. “The statute’s obligation to ‘inform’ calls for more than a rote recitation of English words to a non-English speaker,” the court wrote. “Such a practice would permit Kafkaesque encounters in which police read aloud a blizzard of words that everyone realizes is incapable of being understood because of a language barrier.”
The ruling vacated Marquez’s refusal conviction and its seven-month license suspension though it did not affect the drunken driving conviction and its three-month license suspension. It also directs the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission and Attorney General’s office to create methods to inform non-English speakers about the breath-test law.
In anticipation of the ruling, the Attorney General’s office has translated the law’s 11-pararaph instruction statement in nearly a dozen languages, including Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Russian and Portuguese. This will prevent another drunken driver from utilizing the no-English defense.