N.J. Court: Police Must Use Language Suspects Know

New Jersey's highest court says drivers who don't speak English must be informed of the consequences of refusing to take an alcohol breath test in a language they understand. The officer who arrested motorist German Marquez informed him that refusing to take the test was an admission of guilt. But the officer read the instructions in English, while Marquez only speaks Spanish. The state court ruling could force police to change the way they communicate with the state's many non-English speaking residents.

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New Jersey's highest court has vacated the conviction of a non-English-speaking driver who refused to take a breath alcohol test. The court ruled that drivers who don't speak English must be informed of the consequences of not taking the test in a language they understand.

Joel Rose reports that the ruling could force police to change the way they communicate with New Jersey's many non-English speakers.

JOEL ROSE: The case dates back to September of 2007, when German Marquez rear-ended another driver. The police officer in Plainfield, New Jersey who arrested Marquez told him that he was required to take a breath test, but the officer read those instructions in English, and Marquez only speaks Spanish.

Mr. MICHAEL BLACKER (Lawyer): It just seemed unjust to me that this guy could be charged with a quasi-criminal offense almost exclusively because he couldn't speak English.

ROSE: Michael Blacker is Marquez's lawyer. In New Jersey, like many states, everyone who's using a public road has already given what's known as implied consent, meaning they have to submit to a breath test or face the penalties.

But as Blacker points out, the law still requires police to inform drivers about the consequences of refusing.

Mr. BLACKER: You just simply can't inform someone by telling them something in a language they clearly don't understand, and that's what this case is really about.

ROSE: The New Jersey Supreme Court narrowly agreed. The four-to-three ruling says police should use a website set up earlier this year by the State Attorney General's Office that plays the breath test instructions in nine foreign languages.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

ROSE: Still, the state's attorney general strongly disagreed with the ruling, and local law enforcement officials don't like it either.

Chief PAUL TURSI (Riverside Township Police Department, New Jersey): It just puts another burden on the police officer who's out enforcing the laws for our society.

ROSE: Paul Tursi is the police chief of Riverside Township in South Jersey. He's afraid the ruling will offer new options for creative defense lawyers.

Chief TURSI: If you open this door, then where does it end up? Should all the street signs be changed? If someone from a different nationality goes through and they don't understand the sign, can they be convicted of that violation?

ROSE: About a quarter of New Jersey's one and a half million immigrants speak a language other than English at home. Latino leaders in New Jersey praised the court's ruling, but German Marquez wasn't free to savor it. He's serving time for an unrelated drug offense.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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