Is a defendant who can show that he or she should have been allowed to waive his or her right to an interpreter entitled to an automatic reversal of the conviction?
That's a question the Iowa Supreme Court tackled Thursday night in the case of State of Iowa v. Carlos Ariel Gomez Garcia during a special session at Davenport Central High School's Performing Arts Center.
According to court documents, Gomez Garcia, 26, a native of Honduras, was charged in Muscatine County District Court with delivery of cocaine in December 2014.
He is able to read and understand the English language and sought to waive the assistance of court interpreters at his trial.
According to court documents, he believed that the presence of interpreters would be distracting and confusing to him and could be unfairly prejudicial to him during a jury trial.
District Court Judge Stuart Werling instructed standby interpreters to provide real-time translation, but told Gomez Garcia that he could remove the wireless earpiece if he no longer wanted to use their translation services, according to court documents.
Gomez Garcia then waived his right to a jury trial and opted for a bench trial. The judge ultimately found him guilty on the drug charge and he was sentenced in September 2015 to up to 10 years in prison.
He appealed and argued that he adequately showed the judge his ability to read and understand the English language and that the presence of interpreters in the courtroom would have obstructed his right to a fair trial and would unfairly prejudice the jury against him.
The Iowa Court of Appeals in November determined that the trial court erred in refusing to accept Gomez Garcia's waiver of interpreter services and reversed his convictions and ordered a new trial.
The state argued on further review before the Iowa Supreme Court that improperly denying a waiver of interpreter services does not fundamentally affect the fairness of the proceedings and does not warrant automatic reversal of a criminal conviction.
For about 45 minutes Thursday night, six justices of the state's highest court questioned Assistant Iowa Attorney General Louis Sloven and defense attorney Courtney Wilson of Davenport.
A seventh justice, Daryl Hecht, was unable to attend Thursday's session.
Sloven argued that presuming prejudice and automatically reversing the conviction is “unworkable.”
“I think that the real reason that we object to the Court of Appeals decision is that this just isn’t one of those kinds of errors that affected the fundamental fairness, goes to a basic constitutional right where it would be appropriate to say presumed prejudice, automatic reversal.”
Slovan argued that the judge acted out of caution when he ordered interpreters to be on standby and said that the ability to be able to have a conversation in a foreign language on the street or in a chosen profession is “very different than being able to understand everything that is said in a highly specialized legal proceeding.”
He argued that it's "much better" to have translators in the courtroom providing services "even if they don't get used."
Gomez Garica’s attorney, Courtney Wilson, argued that the real prejudice is having the interpreter present and visible to the jury panel.
Justice Bruce Zager asked Wilson if this issue could have been taken care of through questioning potential jurors during the voir dire process or the judge’s offer a limiting instruction for jurors before they begin their deliberations.
“I think it’s a wonderful notion to believe that having through jury selection or through a limiting instruction to think that we can encourage jurors to come forward and tell us about their biases, but I think the reality of the situation is that most people aren’t willing to admit their biases or prejudices in front of other individuals,” Wilson argued.
Wilson said other federal and state courts around the country have found that an automatic reversal is appropriate when a defendant is denied the right to an interpreter.
“I believe this court would be the first court to find that there should be automatic reversal when the defendant is denied the right to waive an interpreter,” she said.
Gomez Garcia sat in the audience during the special hearing. He recently got out of prison and said he was surprised that the high court was taking up his case.
“I don’t know what’s going to be the outcome,” he said. “Hopefully, something good.”
Chief Justice Mark Cady said justices could hand down a written decision in two or three months.