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Supreme Court affirms admitting English transcript at trial

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English language translation transcripts of statements recorded in foreign language, if otherwise admissible, may be properly considered as substantive evidence, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In Noe Romo v. State of Indiana, No. 49S04-1009-CR-499, the justices had to decide whether a trial court committed reversible error by admitting as substantive evidence the three translation transcripts of the Spanish recordings between Noe Romo and a police informant. The recordings were made during drug transactions and Romo was later convicted of three counts of Class A felony dealing in cocaine or narcotic drugs.

Romo’s attorney made several unsuccessful objections to the state’s offer of the English transcripts into evidence. The trial court ruled the Spanish recordings wouldn’t be played because the jurors would likely not understand them. Romo’s appeal only challenged the admission of the English transcripts and not the refusal of the trial court to play the audio recordings to the jury.

The Indiana Rules of Evidence don’t address this exact issue, but Evidence Rule 1002 says that to prove the content of a writing, recording, or photograph, the original is required, with a few exceptions.

Indiana caselaw hasn’t touched on this specific issue either, with previous rulings dealing with transcripts of recordings that were both in English. Those rulings viewed the function of transcripts as an aid to assist a jury’s understanding of the actual recording and that the original recording must be submitted as proof of the contents of the recording. Justice Brent Dickson noted that Small v. State, 736 N.E.2d 742 (Ind. 2000), and Roby v. State, 742 N.E.2d 505 (Ind. 2001), left open the possibly of a more robust role for transcripts where recording is inaudible or indistinct.

The justices turned to federal rulings to find that English language translation transcripts of statements recorded in a foreign language, if otherwise admissible, may properly be considered as substantive evidence, citing United States v. Estrada, 256 F.3d 466 (7th Cir. 2001), and United States v. Placensia, 352 F.3d 1157, 1165 (8th Cir. 2003). They also held the admission into evidence of foreign language translation transcripts is not governed by Evidence Rule 1002.

“Although the defendant does not here focus on the trial court's refusal to play the Spanish recordings, in the exercise of our general supervisory authority, we determine that it is generally the better practice to play such foreign language recordings to the jury upon a reasonable request by a party,” Justice Dickson wrote. “Expediency undoubtedly results when a jury is spared from listening to foreign-language recordings, and practical usefulness is served by providing them instead with reliable English translations or translation transcripts. But we value even higher the capacity of jurors to apply their sensing and intuition faculties in reaching their determinations.”

The justices summarily affirmed the Indiana Court of Appeals on all other issues, and affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

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