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Torres v. United States

August 9, 2007

CARLOS TORRES, APPELLANT
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (F-5344-99) (Hon. Natalia Combs Greene, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Senior Judge

Submitted May 26, 2005

Before RUIZ and GLICKMAN, Associate Judges, and TERRY, Senior Judge.*fn1

Appellant Torres was convicted of unauthorized use of a vehicle and receiving stolen property. On appeal he challenges only the trial court's denial of his pretrial motion to suppress certain statements. He contends that he is a "non-English speaking person" within the meaning of the Interpreters for Hearing-Impaired and Non-English Speaking Persons Act ("the Interpreter Act"), D.C. Code §§ 2-1901 et seq. (2001), which requires an arresting officer to secure a qualified interpreter for a non-English speaker in custody before questioning that person. We reject his contention and affirm the judgment.

I.

Appellant was indicted for first-degree theft (two counts - a car and several compact discs that were in the car), unauthorized use of a vehicle ("UUV"), and receiving stolen property (two counts - the car and its license plates), arising from an incident that occurred on July 24, 1999, as well as UUV and receiving stolen property (two counts - a car and its license plates), arising from an incident that occurred four days later, on July 28. After a hearing, the court denied his pretrial motion to suppress certain statements he made to the police on both July 24 and July 28.

The court later granted appellant's motion to sever the three counts based on events occurring on July 28, and appellant went to trial only on the five counts based on the events of July 24. The jury found appellant guilty of UUV and both counts of receiving stolen property; he was acquitted, however, of both theft charges. The government's trial evidence included a three-page statement signed by appellant after his July 24 arrest, in which he answered several questions concerning the car and its contents. After being sentenced, appellant filed a timely notice of appeal.*fn2

II.

The principal issue at the suppression hearing was whether appellant was a "non-English speaking person" within the meaning of the Interpreter Act. United States Park Police Officer William LeBlanc, Pretrial Services Agency staff member David Fish, and Pretrial Services supervisors David Cooper and Joyce Corley testified for the government. Agnes Obobi, appellant's girl friend, and Patricia Fernandez, a legal assistance eligibility examiner for the Public Defender Service, testified for the defense. Appellant did not testify.

A. The Evidence at the Hearing

While on patrol in Rock Creek Park on July 24, 1999, shortly before 5:00 a.m., Officer LeBlanc and his partner approached a parked car that was in a parking lot next to an area known as Grove 27. The officer asked appellant, who was seated behind the wheel, for his name. Officer LeBlanc, who acknowledged in his testimony that he was not proficient in Spanish beyond "a vocabulary [that] might last twenty words," addressed appellant in English. Appellant was eventually taken to the police station. As Officer LeBlanc prepared to read appellant his Miranda rights*fn3 (also in English), he gave appellant the choice of "reading along" with him from a "rights card" available in either English or Spanish; appellant elected to read the Spanish version. Officer LeBlanc testified that he had no reason to believe that appellant did not understand spoken English, but that he was not sure that appellant, who was originally from Honduras, knew how to read English. Appellant answered all the questions asked of him on the card and never indicated that he had any difficulty in understanding those questions.

In court Officer LeBlanc identified the rights card, with Miranda warnings printed in Spanish, that he gave to appellant at the police station. Appellant had written the answer "yes" in English next to each of the Miranda questions that were printed on the card in Spanish, and both appellant and the officer had signed the card. Although affirmative responses by appellant to all the card's questions effectively waived his Miranda rights and indicated his willingness to talk to the police, Officer LeBlanc did not speak to him further at that time.

About three hours later, Officers LeBlanc and Vernelli*fn4 began to interview appellant. Before any questions were asked, Officer Vernelli read the Miranda warnings in English to appellant from a "suspect-defendant statement form," which was on a clipboard that the officer was holding in his hand. At the top of the form, as Officer LeBlanc described it, there was a printed version of the Miranda warnings, "the same as what's on the rights card." Appellant acknowledged his understanding of what Officer Vernelli had just told him by writing his initials on the form, "just below the Miranda warnings," thereby waiving his Miranda rights once again.

Officer LeBlanc then asked appellant a series of investigatory questions about the car that he was driving - how he acquired the car, how much he paid for it, where he obtained the license plates,*fn5 whether he had a title. Appellant replied that he had agreed to buy the car and its accompanying plates from another man for $1000, but he did not yet possess the title because he still had not paid for the car. He explained that the tools found in the trunk of the car belonged to him and that he needed them. He also disavowed any knowledge of a second set of license plates discovered inside the trunk, emphasizing that he had had the car in his possession for only two days. As Officer LeBlanc continued the questioning, Officer Vernelli wrote down each question and the ensuing response. Officer LeBlanc testified that he deliberately asked his questions slowly, so that Officer Vernelli would have ample time to transcribe the conversation "word for word." When the interview was completed, Officer Vernelli copied his notes into a three-page document, then ...


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