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Judges extend due process safeguards regarding interpreters to civil cases

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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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  • Learned Helplessness?
    The opinion states that Saba is a United States citizen. How can she be naturalized with so few English language skills that she needs an interpreter?

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  1. Well, maybe it's because they are unelected, and, they have a tendency to strike down laws by elected officials from all over the country. When you have been taught that "Democracy" is something almost sacred, then, you will have a tendency to frown on such imperious conduct. Lawyers get acculturated in law school into thinking that this is the very essence of high minded government, but to people who are more heavily than King George ever did, they may not like it. Thanks for the information.

  2. I pd for a bankruptcy years ago with Mr Stiles and just this week received a garnishment from my pay! He never filed it even though he told me he would! Don't let this guy practice law ever again!!!

  3. Excellent initiative on the part of the AG. Thankfully someone takes action against predators taking advantage of people who have already been through the wringer. Well done!

  4. Conour will never turn these funds over to his defrauded clients. He tearfully told the court, and his daughters dutifully pledged in interviews, that his first priority is to repay every dime of the money he stole from his clients. Judge Young bought it, much to the chagrin of Conour’s victims. Why would Conour need the $2,262 anyway? Taxpayers are now supporting him, paying for his housing, utilities, food, healthcare, and clothing. If Conour puts the money anywhere but in the restitution fund, he’s proved, once again, what a con artist he continues to be and that he has never had any intention of repaying his clients. Judge Young will be proven wrong... again; Conour has no remorse and the Judge is one of the many conned.

  5. Pass Legislation to require guilty defendants to pay for the costs of lab work, etc as part of court costs...

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