In a landmark decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court weighed in on a crucial issue of first impression: Must a criminal defendant be provided in-person interpreting services during a jury trial, or will video remote interpreting (VRI) suffice? The case of State v. Juracan-Juracan dives into this question, addressing a major point of contention within the legal community—especially given the significant adjustments courts have had to make in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oscar R. Juracan-Juracan, a native speaker of the Kaqchikel language, was charged with multiple offenses related to alleged sexual assault. Juracan-Juracan requested a Kaqchikel interpreter for his trial, but because the interpreter resided on the West Coast and only spoke Kaqchikel and Spanish, a second interpreter was needed to translate between Spanish and English. The interpreter himself expressed concerns about the effectiveness of remote interpretation during the jury trial. Despite these concerns, the trial court denied the request for in-person interpreting, citing financial constraints among other reasons.
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for reconsideration. The Court made several crucial points:
The Sixth Amendment, along with its counterpart in the New Jersey Constitution, provides every criminal defendant with the right to a fair trial. Language interpretation is an essential component of this right, as it ensures that the defendant can fully participate in the proceedings.
The Court delved into the evolution of the LAP in New Jersey, which expanded due to the COVID-19 pandemic to permit VRI services for longer periods and various types of proceedings.
The Court formulated a non-exclusive list of factors for trial courts to consider when deciding whether to use VRI, emphasizing a “presumption of in-person interpreting services for criminal jury trials.”
This decision serves as a guideline for future cases that may have complexities related to language barriers. It places the onus on the court to consider multiple factors, including the nature of the case, the position of the interpreter, and the financial implications before deciding between in-person and remote interpreting.
In a time when courts are increasingly relying on technology to facilitate proceedings, the State v. Juracan-Juracan case sets an important precedent. While acknowledging the role of technology, the Court reaffirms the fundamental right of a defendant to a fair trial, including effective language interpretation, as paramount. This ruling will undoubtedly influence how courts across the nation address the delicate balance between technological convenience and constitutional rights.
It’s worth noting that the State v. Juracan-Juracan decision is particularly salient for regions like Hudson County, New Jersey, a diverse hub that is home to people from various linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. Hudson County is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the United States, with a large number of residents who speak languages other than English at home.
Given this diversity, the likelihood of encountering defendants in need of interpreting services is significantly higher than in other areas. Prior to this ruling, the expanded use of VRI as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic had raised concerns about whether justice could be equally accessible to all residents, particularly those who are not proficient in English. The court’s decision in this case provides crucial guidance that can be directly applied in Hudson County to ensure that the judicial system remains equitable and accessible for its diverse population.