Federal Criminal Case Thrown Out: Police Cannot Use Google Translate to Get Consent from non-English Speaking Driver

I love it, a perfect example of the intersection between modern technology and federal criminal cases!   A United States District Court in Kansas recently threw out, by granting a Motion to Suppress, a federal criminal case in which the Defendant was charged with carrying drugs in the vehicle he was driving.  The police officer who stopped the vehicle wanted the Defendant’s to consent to look in the car, but the driver spoke limited English.  The resourceful officer turned to the Google Translate application on the laptop computer in his police vehicle in an attempt to fully communicate with the stopped driver.  Even though the officer believed that the Defendant consented to a search (which resulted in a large quantity of drugs hidden in the car), the federal judge said that Google Translate is not a sufficiently accurate tool to assure that the Defendant was aware of what he was agreeing to.  The case is  US v. Omar Cruz-Zamora.

So, let’s start with a couple of basic principles.  Everybody, and I mean everybody, is against large-scale illegal drug dealing.  However, everybody also needs to be reminded from time to time that our constitutional protections apply to all people, innocent and guilty, native-born and immigrants.  When we decide to take away constitutional rights from some, it makes those same protections weaker for the rest of us.  Second, our Constitution and the Bill of Rights were purposely designed to make it sometimes difficult for the government to search our private property.  That is why the people who wrote the Bill of Rights created the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment generally requires that the police get a search warrant from an independent judicial officer before a search can happen.  One exception to this rule is “consent”, meaning that we are always able to waive or dispense with out constitutional rights, but here’s the important part, only if we know about and clearly indicate that such a waiver is what we really want to do!

In this recent case, the Judge heard lots of evidence from the police officer, from his videotaping equipment in his vehicle, from two interpreters, and from Mr. Cruz-Zamora.  After considering all this, the Judge concluded that the Defendant doesn’t speak English well and that the consent to search the car was obtained through an exchange in which the police officer used Google Translate.  The Judge decided that this translation tool was insufficiently accurate to constitute consent given “freely and intelligently.”

The opinion notes that the actual translations provided by the app simply are not  good enough to accurately communicate the question. For example, the officer asked “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” — the literal meaning of which is closer to “can I find the car,” not “can I search the car”  or “can I search for the car,” which is very different. The Judge found no evidence that the Defendant made any connection between this “literal but nonsensical” translation. Furthermore, the Judge believed that the translation was insufficient to demonstrate that the driver understood the real question of whether he consented to a search, let alone whether he understood that he had a choice at all.

Again, I love how our legal system struggles to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change.  I know that the government will likely appeal this ruling, but I look forward to this and other cases like it in the future that will help all of us understand just how far our constitutional protections go in the digital age.