M.D.Pa.: Google Translate is not constitutionally sufficient to attempt to get consent from a non-English speaking motorist

Google Translate is not constitutionally sufficient to attempt to get consent from a non-English speaking motorist. Some of the translations here were non-sensical. Alternatively, however, the search was valid under the automobile exception. United States v. Ramirez-Mendoza, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 190338 (M.D.Pa. Oct. 1, 2021):

The Government has not met its burden of proving that Ramirez-Mendoza provided consent to the search of her car. First, the record shows that Ramirez-Mendoza did not understand Conrad’s request to search her car as it was phrased in English. The Government makes much of Ramirez-Mendoza’s ability to answer two questions in English. But her responses were to simple questions posed in Spanish.

Further, the Government’s arguments are undermined by the early portion of the stop where Ramirez-Mendoza incorrectly answered Conrad’s question of where she was from, spoke in very broken English, and then ultimately resorted to Spanish. Additionally, nothing in Ramirez-Mendoza’s background, such as education or length of time spent in the United States, would suggest she has a strong grasp of the English language.

Second, the Court is not convinced that Google Translate accurately translated Conrad’s request for consent into Spanish. The Government bears the burden of proof, but failed to introduce any evidence showing that the word “registrar” actually means “to search.” Unlike in cases such as Salas-Antuna or United States v. Leiva which found the word “buscar” sufficient to communicate to a suspect that an officer would like to search her property, the Court has no legal or factual basis for interpreting the term “registrar” in a similar manner. Precision is important, particularly in this context, and the Court believes that more was needed to establish the accuracy of Google Translate.

Moreover, even if the Court credited the transcript’s translation, it would not be enough to bear the Government’s burden. While the transcript tends to prove that Ramirez-Mendoza knew that Conrad intended to search her car, the translation would still undercut the Government’s case as the transcript shows that Google Translate revised Conrad’s question into a statement. As a statement that one “like[s] to search” is significantly more coercive than a request, this alone would not be enough to establish voluntary consent. The transcript thus presents strong evidence of coercion which would suggest that Ramirez-Mendoza felt unable to refuse given Conrad’s declaration.

Third, the Court declines to infer that Google Translate accurately translated and communicated Conrad’s request to search Ramirez-Mendoza’s vehicle solely because it may work well generally. A review of the record shows that Google Translate is a useful tool with an alarming capacity for miscommunication and error. That the app can facilitate basic communication does not make it an adequate method for soliciting consent. It need only fail once to obviate a suspect’s consent. As a result, the Court cannot hold that Google Translate is sufficiently reliable to presume its accuracy without further verification.

Fourth, the Court declines to discredit Ramirez-Mendoza’s testimony and therefore affirmatively finds that she did not understand Conrad’s request as it was translated in Spanish. The Court will not discredit her testimony on the basis that she is a “seasoned participant” in the criminal-justice system, and that she provided false identification to Conrad during the stop. The Court believes her criminal history has no bearing on her present credibility and finds her uncontroverted testimony truthful and consistent with the evidence in the record.

Fifth, the totality of the circumstances does not suggest that Ramirez-Mendoza consented to a search of her car. Conrad did not provide Ramirez-Mendoza with a Spanish-language consent form. Nor did he gesture to the car or physically indicate that he intended to search the vehicle. Further, he did not inquire into whether Ramirez-Mendoza understood him or attempt to explain what he meant. Conversely, Ramirez-Mendoza did not affirmatively demonstrate consent by, for example, opening her car door or showing a willingness to cooperate.

In sum, Conrad’s conduct fell below the threshold required of officers when soliciting consent in the face of a language barrier. Conrad placed his faith in a tool whose accuracy he could not confirm and whose reliability had been called into question. It is beyond dispute that Conrad did not know how his words were being translated. But Conrad did not question Google Translate or attempt an alternative method of investigation when it became apparent that the app was periodically producing nonsensical and bizarre translations.

n. Because the moment of consent is so present and a translator is not available, the gold standard appears to be an accurately translated foreign-language consent form which the defendant reads and signs. See Cedano-Medina, 366 F.3d at 687; United States v. Gaviria, 775 F. Supp. 495, 500 (D.R.I. 1991); e.g., United States v. Palomino, 100 F.3d 446, 450-51 (6th Cir. 1996); United States v. Zapata-Tamallo, 833 F.2d 25, 27 (2d Cir. 1987); United States v. Marin, 761 F.2d 426, 433-34 (7th Cir. 1985); United States v. Guevara-Miranda, 640 Fed. Appx. 319, 321 (5th Cir. 2016); United States v. Gonzalez-Ramirez, 317 Fed. Appx. 790, 796 (10th Cir. 2009); United States v. Camilo, 287 F. Supp. 2d 446, 454 (S.D.N.Y. 2003); United States v. Soto-Teran, 44 F. Supp. 2d 185, 194 (E.D.N.Y. 1996); United States v. Hernandez, 872 F. Supp. 1288, 1296 (D. Del. 1994); United States v. Tavarez, 834 F. Supp. 55, 56 (D.P.R. 1993); United States v. Garcia-Restrepo, 648 F. Supp. 1188, 1194 (S.D. Fla. 1986); see also United States v. Hernandez, 224 F. Supp. 2d 1156, 1160-61 (W.D. Tenn. 2002) (finding no consent where the consent form “contained numerous linguistic mistakes which distorted its content to the point of rendering it nonsensical”); United States v. Suarez, 694 F. Supp. 926, 939 n.10 (S.D. Ga. 1988) (holding it inappropriate to use an English consent form as evidence of consent where the defendant spoke Spanish and the form was not translated). Conrad has provided no valid explanation for his failure to use such a form and, had he simply employed a consent form, there would be no dispute regarding Ramirez-Mendoza’s consent, or lack thereof.
crucial, that a tool generally works is not sufficient to infer that the tool is accurate

in a particular instance. In the present circumstances, the Court believes that a reasonable officer would have taken steps to confirm that his statement were communicated accurately given the high risk of miscommunication posed by Google Translate. Alternatively, Conrad could have checked his vehicle for consent forms, requested the forms from his station, or simply used the trained dog sitting in his backseat. Conrad failed to do so with virtually no explanation as to why.

Accordingly, the Court finds that Ramirez-Mendoza did not provide consent to the search of her vehicle.

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