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State v. Lopez-Ramos

Supreme Court of Minnesota

June 12, 2019

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Cesar Rosario Lopez-Ramos, Appellant.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Kathleen A. Kusz, Nobles County Attorney, Travis J. Smith, Special Assistant County Attorney, Slayton, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Lydia Maria Villalva Lijó, Assistant Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

         SYLLABUS

         1. Use of a foreign language interpreter to translate statements by appellant from Spanish to English does not implicate the Confrontation Clause, U.S. Const. amend. VI.

         2. Because appellant was the declarant of the statements translated by the foreign language interpreter, the statements are not hearsay under Minn. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(A).

          OPINION

          GILDEA, Chief Justice.

         This case presents the questions of whether the admission of statements made by appellant using a foreign language interpreter violates the Confrontation Clause of the United States Constitution and hearsay rules. Because we conclude that the Confrontation Clause is not violated and the statements are not subject to the hearsay rules, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

         FACTS

         In May 2016, the State charged appellant Cesar Rosario Lopez-Ramos with one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct under Minn. Stat. § 609.342, subd. 1(a) (2018).[1] Several days earlier, a county child protection worker contacted police regarding the possible sexual abuse of a 12-year-old female. During the subsequent investigation, the victim and her parents identified Lopez-Ramos as the only suspect.

         Police officers made contact with Lopez-Ramos, and he agreed to provide a statement. An officer transported Lopez-Ramos to the county law enforcement center.[2] In an interview room, the officer started the recording system [3] and called the AT&T LanguageLine, a foreign language translation service.[4] The officer requested a Spanish interpreter.[5] Once a Spanish interpreter was on the line, the officer used the speaker function on the telephone to conduct an interview in sequential interpretation, meaning that the officer asked a question in English, the interpreter translated the question from English to Spanish, Lopez-Ramos responded in Spanish, and the interpreter translated the response from Spanish to English. During the interview, Lopez-Ramos admitted to the officer that he had sexual intercourse with the victim on one occasion.

         The case proceeded to a jury trial. During a conference on the first morning of the trial, Lopez-Ramos told the district court that he intended to object to the admission of his translated statements. Lopez-Ramos argued that the admission of the translated statements into evidence would violate the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause and Minnesota's hearsay rules because the State was not going to call the interpreter to testify during the trial.

         The district court asked the State to make a foundational offer of proof regarding the interpreter used to translate the statements made by Lopez-Ramos from Spanish to English. The State explained that the interpreter's identification and physical location were never verified, primarily because Lopez-Ramos never formally challenged the accuracy of the translation. The district court concluded that the interpreter was acting as a "language conduit" during the interview, meaning that the statements were attributable to Lopez-Ramos as the declarant. The district court held that the admission of the translated statements did not violate the Confrontation Clause or hearsay rules, and therefore overruled the objection by Lopez-Ramos.

         During the jury trial, the officer testified that Lopez-Ramos responded directly to the translated questions and never requested clarification from the interpreter. The officer told the jury that Lopez-Ramos admitted during the interview to having sexual intercourse with the victim.

         The video recording of the interview was admitted into evidence and played for the jury. The video shows that Lopez-Ramos was able to fully participate in the interview and he never expressed any confusion or stated that he did not understand the questions asked by the officer and translated by the interpreter.[6]

         The victim testified during the trial that Lopez-Ramos sexually penetrated her. Lopez-Ramos testified in his own defense and denied having any sexual contact with the victim.[7] Lopez-Ramos told the jury that during the police interview, he was intoxicated and did not understand some of the questions asked by the officer.

         The jury found Lopez-Ramos guilty of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. The district court convicted Lopez-Ramos of that offense and sentenced him to 144 months in prison.

         Lopez-Ramos appealed his conviction, arguing that the admission of his translated statements violated the Confrontation Clause and hearsay rules. In a published opinion, the court of appeals upheld the district court's ruling that the admission of the interpreter's translated statements did not violate the Confrontation Clause or hearsay rules. State v. Lopez-Ramos, 913 N.W.2d 695, 699 (Minn.App. 2018). The court of appeals held that "when the state seeks to admit into evidence a criminal defendant's admissions made through an interpreter, upon a Confrontation Clause or hearsay objection a district court must determine as a preliminary matter whether the interpreter's translation can fairly be attributable to the defendant, or whether the interpreter is a separate declarant." Id. at 708. The court of appeals addressed four factors: (1) which party supplied the interpreter, (2) whether the interpreter had any motive to mislead or distort, (3) the interpreter's qualifications, and (4) whether actions taken subsequent to the conversation were consistent with the statements as translated. Id. Applying the factors, the court of appeals determined that the interpreter's translated statements were attributable to Lopez-Ramos as the declarant. Id. at 709. Therefore, the court of appeals concluded that no Confrontation Clause violation occurred and the statements were admissible over the hearsay objection as admissions by a party-opponent under Minn. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(A). 913 N.W.2d at 709-10.

         We granted Lopez-Ramos's petition for review.

         ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Lopez-Ramos argues that the admission of his translated statements violates the Confrontation Clause. He also contends that his translated statements are inadmissible hearsay evidence. See Minn. R. Evid. 802 ("Hearsay is not admissible except as provided by these rules or by other rules prescribed by the Supreme Court or by the Legislature."). We consider each issue in turn.[8]

         I.

         We turn first to the argument by Lopez-Ramos that the admission of the video recording of his interview and the officer's testimony regarding his statements violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Confrontation Clause provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him." U.S. Const. amend. VI. The United States Supreme Court has recognized that "the principal evil at which the Confrontation Clause was directed" was the use of ex parte or one-sided "examinations as evidence against the accused." Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 50 (2004). The Supreme Court stated that the Confrontation Clause must be viewed with a historical focus, including its common-law heritage. See id. The common law did not allow the admission of testimonial out-of-court statements by a witness who did not appear at trial unless the witness was unavailable to testify and the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the witness.[9] See id. at 49-50, 53-54. In other words, the primary objective behind the adoption of the Confrontation Clause was to regulate the admission of testimonial hearsay by witnesses against the defendant.

         Prior to Crawford, the Supreme Court observed that its case law "has been largely consistent with" the original text and meaning of the Confrontation Clause. See id. at 57. An aberration occurred in Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56 (1980), when the Supreme Court departed from historical principle and allowed the admission of testimonial hearsay based upon a finding of reliability only. See Crawford, 541 U.S. at 60; Roberts, 448 U.S. at 66. But in Crawford, the Supreme Court discarded the "unpredictable and inconsistent" reliability principle espoused in Roberts and returned to the original text and meaning of the Confrontation Clause. See 541 U.S. at 66, 68 n.10.

         In Crawford, the government charged the defendant with assault and attempted murder for stabbing a man who allegedly sexually assaulted his wife. Id. at 38-40. The defendant argued that the stabbing was done in self-defense. Id. at 40. The government sought the admission of statements made by the defendant's wife to police officers regarding the stabbing because the wife's statements refuted the defendant's self-defense claim. Id. Even though the wife did not appear or testify during the trial, her statements to the police were admitted into evidence and used against him, and the jury found the defendant guilty. Id. at 40-41.

         The Supreme Court held that the admission of the wife's statements to police violated the Confrontation Clause. Id. at 68-69. The Supreme Court abandoned the reliability analysis set forth in Roberts, see id. at 67, and returned to the original text of the Confrontation Clause, noting that the clause specifically applies to "witnesses against the accused-in other words, those who bear testimony," id. at 51 (internal quotation marks omitted) (citation omitted). The Supreme Court observed that "[a]n accuser who makes a formal statement to government officers bears testimony in a sense that a person who makes a casual remark to an acquaintance does not," and the text of the Confrontation Clause "reflects an especially acute concern with [the] specific type of out-of-court statement." Id. In applying the Confrontation Clause to the facts of Crawford, the Supreme Court concluded that the defendant had a right to confront his wife about her statements to police officers that arguably defeated his self-defense claim. See id. at 68-69. In other words, the defendant had a constitutional right to confront a witness who made testimonial statements that were admitted against the defendant.

         Lopez-Ramos relies on Crawford and argues that the translated statements he made to the police are like the statements made by the defendant's wife to the police in Crawford. We disagree. The statements at issue in Crawford were undoubtedly made by a third party-the defendant's wife. This case does not involve a third-party declarant whose testimony is offered against the defendant. The statements at issue here were made by the defendant himself in Spanish and then translated into English by a foreign language interpreter.[10] The facts of this case then are materially different from those presented in Crawford.

         But the bedrock principle of Crawford still controls and compels the result that we reach. As the Supreme Court noted, the Confrontation Clause specifically applies to "witnesses against the accused-in other words, those who bear testimony." Crawford, 541 U.S. at 51 (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citation omitted). The Supreme Court observed that the Confrontation Clause "reflects an especially acute concern" with statements made by a witness or "[a]n accuser who makes a formal statement to government officers." Id.

         This case requires that we apply the underlying principle of Crawford to the role of a foreign language interpreter. The function of an interpreter is to convert a statement from one language to another, processing the linguistics in order to allow parties to understand one another. The role of the interpreter is not to provide or vary content; the role of the interpreter is to relay what the defendant said in another language. In this way, an interpreter is not a witness against the defendant. See United States v. Solorio, 669 F.3d 943, 951 (9th Cir. 2012) (concluding that the Confrontation Clause was not violated when an interpreter translated in-court statements of a government informant because the defendant had an opportunity to cross-examine the informant and "[t]he interpreters, who only translated [the informant's] in-court statements, were not themselves witnesses who testified against [the defendant]."). The interpreter is simply the vehicle for conversion or translation of language. To be sure, the role of an interpreter can be fulfilled by a machine or someone using a foreign language dictionary to look up each word for the proper conversion. If a machine or foreign language ...


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