How a greeting card is changing the way New Orleans police Mirandize Spanish speakers

You’ve heard these sentences repeated on pretty much every police TV show: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

It’s the “Miranda Warning”: Police are required to tell people accused of crimes what their rights are. However, half a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court backed the warning, millions of Americans still may not be properly protected by it. New Orleans is now the testing ground for a new initiative aimed at addressing part of that problem.

Chief Justice Earl Warren declared in 1966 that it is the duty of law enforcement to spell out the rights of the accused. Without the Miranda Warning, Warren argued, the system was “at odds with one of our Nation’s most cherished principles– that the individual may not be compelled to incriminate himself.”

Yet when asked to attend a celebration of the 50-year anniversary of this landmark decision, Richard Pena of the American Bar Association’s Hispanic Commission realized the warning only fairly served English speakers. Millions of others in the United States could be misinterpreting their constitutional rights due to language barriers.

“It was a bit of a shock that it had not been addressed,” Pena said. 

No one had developed a uniform translation of those rights into any language except English. Over 10 percent of Americans list Spanish as their primary language, yet officers across the country recite a cacophony of Spanish translations of the Miranda Warning, many of which skew or misconstrue the meaning of the accused’s constitutional rights.

In one case from the U.S. Ninth Circuit, an officer mistranslated the word “free” (as in “a free lawyer”) as libre, rather than gratis–meaning that the lawyer was not incarcerated rather than the lawyer would be provided at no cost. In another, the officer said the defendant retained the right to point at (puntador) rather than be appointed (para nombrar) a lawyer. Once an officer literally pronounced the abbreviation Ud., meaning usted or “you.” (This would be similar to an English speaker saying “mers,” but meaning “Mrs.”) In some cases, translations included completely fabricated Spanish words, such as “silento” or “empleca.”

Pena presented a compilation of these mistakes to the American Bar Association (ABA), which responded by funding the Miranda Project, an initiative focused on creating a uniform translation and developing the tools to convey it. Everyone from law enforcement officials to defense lawyers supported the move, he said. After all, eliminating mistranslations benefits everyone who interacts with the criminal justice system by creating a more efficient and fair system, says Pena.

“It was such a no-brainer,” said Matt Redle, a prosecuting attorney for Sheridan County, Wyoming and the vice-chair of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Council. “Your law enforcement officer wants to deliver the warnings so that any statements made are going to be admissible at law. At the same time, the defense counsel wants to know that the rights were properly given and their client understood the information.”

Once everyone signed on, Pena’s Hispanic Commission worked to develop a uniform translation, paying special attention to nuances between dialects. Then engineers at the ABA Center for Innovation searched for ways that officers could convey the message in a number of different settings.

The first solution was a sit-and-watch Miranda warning — a video displayed on computers already installed within officers’ vehicles. However, toting a computer or tablet around during field work would be burdensome and inefficient. Therefore, they leaned on the unlikely greeting card industry for a supplemental version. 

The Miranda card transforms the idea behind the singing birthday card, which has a small built-in audio player, into a legal tool. Instead of a song, the Miranda Card plays a recording of the uniform translation. Written text and explanatory graphics replace the space normally occupied by a card’s punchline or platitude. The visual, audio and written elements reinforce one another and enhance comprehension, according to Jeremy Alexis, a senior lecturer at IIT Institute of Design who helped design the product.

Before they could roll out these methods nationally, ABA needed a testing ground to work out the quirks. ABA’s president-elect Judy Perry Martinez is from New Orleans and looked to the city she knew best to test the tools.

Commander Otha Sandifer, a 26-year New Orleans Police Department veteran, oversees consent decree compliance and technology for the department. ABA supplied him with the Miranda cards as well as the video translation of the warning, which he distributed to officers in the 1st, 3rd and 8th districts. Those districts have a higher population of Spanish-speaking residents than the rest of city. While officers haven’t had many chances yet to actually implement the card in the field, they have offered some logistical tips to improve the transparency and efficiency of the product.

For example, the original card only had the Miranda translation and graphics on one side. Officers recommended it be printed on both sides so that the card could be viewed by the arrested person and simultaneously captured by the officer’s body camera. Occasionally, officers said the card would be jostled within their bags and would start playing unprompted. The design team responded by implementing a clear on and off switch, rather than an easily activated button.

Once the testing phase ends, ABA aims to distribute the Miranda Cards nationwide and start pursuing other languages. Sandifer hopes to expand the card to Vietnamese next, since New Orleans is home to over 10,000 Vietnamese speakers.   

“We take an oath to ensure equal justice to all and this card expands and ensures that right for a large population,” Sandifer said. 

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