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Court: Defendants with limited English have right to interpreter

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Defendant says she did not understand her options
  • The ACLU says the case violated the Constitution
  • The woman was sentenced to 10 years in the 2008 case

Atlanta (CNN) -- Defendants with limited English-language skills have a constitutional right to court interpreters in criminal trials, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled Monday.

The ruling came in a case involving a Mandarin Chinese speaker who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on two counts of cruelty to a child. Annie Ling, who had limited English language skills, did not understand that she had the option to plead guilty instead of going to trial and possibly facing a longer sentence, said the American Civil Liberties Union, one of two groups that filed a friend-of-the-court brief stating that denying a defendant an interpreter violates the U.S. Constitution and civil rights laws.

"The court acknowledged that we don't have two systems of justice in this country -- one for English speakers and another for everyone else," said Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia. "The constitutional guarantee of due process applies to everyone in this country, not just fluent English speakers."

Ling was arrested and charged with two counts of cruelty to a child. Her children were removed from the home and placed in foster care, according to court documents. After a 2008 trial, Ling was convicted of one count of cruelty to a child, and sentenced to 15 years, with 10 to serve in prison. The conviction was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The court agreed with the brief, in which the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center joined with the ACLU, that the Sixth Amendment and the due process clause of the 14th Amendment guarantee the defendant the right to an interpreter.

The Georgia Supreme Court also instructed all Georgia state courts to practice "vigilance in protecting the rights of non-English-speakers."