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Judges extend due process safeguards regarding interpreters to civil cases

October 4, 2011

A trial court must take the same steps in a civil action as it does in a criminal action regarding the use of an interpreter in order to address due process concerns, the Indiana Court of Appeals held for the first time Tuesday.

The appellate court had to determine whether mother Saba Tesfamariam’s due process rights were violated during a hearing dissolving her marriage to Moghes Woldehaimanot. Both parties are from Africa and their native language is Tigrinya. Tesfamariam can’t speak English fluently, but she was taking English classes. Woldehaimanot is able to speak English fluently enough to communicate without an interpreter.

Tesfamariam requested an interpreter for the final hearing regarding Woldehaimanot’s petition for dissolution of marriage, but later told the trial court she was willing to proceed without one. But the trial court provided her one because it was “easy to do.” The trial court used Language Line, the telephone interpretation service funded by the Indiana Supreme Court.

The court awarded Woldehaimanot sole legal and physical custody of the children with Tesfamariam receiving parenting time.

Tesfamariam argued on appeal that she was denied due process because the trial court failed to administer an oath to her interpreter or ensure that the interpreter was properly qualified as an expert. Relying on Mariscal v. State, 687 N.E.2d 378, 382 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), which addressed these issues for criminal court, the appellate court found the trial court abused its discretion by not establishing that the interpreter was qualified and by failing to administer an oath to provide an accurate translation.

The due process implications in this case are substantial, and it’s appropriate to require the same procedural safeguards as in criminal cases, wrote Judge Patricia Riley in Saba Tesfamariam v. Moghes Woldehaimanot, No. 49A02-1009-DR-1050.

Tesfamariam never objected to the interpreter errors at trial and later claimed that those errors were fundamental and not subject to waiver. The judges relied on caselaw to hold that a failure to establish the qualifications of an interpreter or to administer an oath is not a fundamental error.

There were times that the interpreter could not hear the trial, but the judges noted this was the result of technical issues and the interpreter always asked for clarification.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to award full custody of the two children to Woldehaimanot.

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