Decisión desocupado: Court improperly denied request for certified Spanish interpreter

The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Knox, No. 935 MDA 2015 (June 21, 2016), holding that is was not harmless error for the trial court to appoint a witness, the sister of the testifying witness, to interpret for the testifying witness without first determining whether a certified court interpreter was unavailable. 


Knox was arrested and charged with criminal attempt homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, criminal conspiracy, persons not to possess a firearm, and carrying a firearm without a license.

Knox proceeded to trial. At trial, witness Rosario was called by the prosecution. Rosario stated on the stand that he could not recall the date in question or the contact he had with police. Upon inquiry, he agreed that reading the statement he gave to police would help to refresh his recollection. Once handed the statement to read, Rosario relayed to the prosecutor, that he could not read English very well. The prosecutor asked if it would help Rosario if his sister, Marte, who had previously testified, would assist in translating. Rosario stated it would.

Knox objected to the trial court allowing Rosario’s sister to translate for him. The trial court overruled his objection, swore Marte in as a translator and permitted her to translate. Later, after Rosario’s testimony concluded and other witnesses had testified, and trial had resumed following a lunch break, Knox moved for a mistrial on the basis that the individual translating for Rosario was not a certified interpreter. The trial court denied this motion.

The jury subsequently found Knox guilty of the aforementioned crimes. He was sentenced to an aggregate term of incarceration of 20 to 40 years and a consecutive term of ten years of probation. This timely filed appeal followed.


Whether the trial court was obligated to determine if a certified interpreter was available before allowing Marte to translate for Rosario?


The trial court’s failure to determine if a certified interpreter was available and, if so, appoint them was reversible error. For that reason, Knox’s sentence was vacated and a new trial granted.


The determination of whether an interpreter is warranted in a particular case is within the sound discretion of the trial court.

Here, the trial court allowed Marte to translate on behalf of her brother, finding that a translator was needed for Rosario to continue testifying. However, upon such discovery that an interpreter was necessary, the court was obligated to appointed a certified interpreter.

While the rule does allow for an interpreter who is not certified to translate, the trial court is first required to show that a “good faith effort was made to obtain a certified interpreter and a certified interpreter was not reasonably available, as determined by the presiding judicial officer.” However, the record in this case was void of any indication that the trial court attempted to locate a certified interpreter, or determine if one was available. Instead, the trial court overruled Knox’s objection and allowed another Commonwealth witness to translate on Rosario’s behalf. This is a clear error and in direct contradiction to the procedures proscribed by statute.

As to whether the error was harmless as argued by the Commonwealth, the Superior Court concluded that it was not. First, the record clearly indicated that there were times that were not transcribed, where Marte and Rosario conversed in Spanish, followed by Rosario answering the question. Secondly, there was no available resource to determine if the translations were correct or if the independent conversations between Marte and Rosario were proper, especially in light of the fact that Marte was a Commonwealth witness who previously testified.

Accordingly, the trial court’s failure to determine if a certified interpreter was available and, if so, appoint them was reversible error. For that reason, Knox’s sentence was vacated and a new trial granted.


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