published Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Bradley County pays $10,000 to settle interpreter suit

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A lawsuit settled in federal court earlier this month means Bradley County must pay $10,000 to a man who says his civil rights were violated when he was forced to pay for an interpreter in court.

Though the decision to settle means the case cannot be used in the future as legal precedent, plaintiffs' attorneys maintain the decision still carries weight for similar cases throughout the country.

"Is it legal precedent that's going to appear in a law book? No. Is it precedent that other governments can look at as a model? Yes," said Travis McDonough, vice chairman of the Miller & Martin law firm's litigation department and a plaintiffs' attorney in the case.

Tom LeQuire, Bradley County's lead defense attorney in the case, declined requests for comment.

The lawsuit, filed last year in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga by Flores Vidal Enriquez and Mark Weissenberg, states that the Bradley County General Sessions Court charged Enriquez $40 in court fees for interpreter services provided by Weissenberg.

According to Enriquez's complaint, charging the fees was a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Enriquez's complaint stated, "The specter of paying interpreter costs creates leverage to discourage a Hispanic, limited-English-proficiency defendant from having his or her day in court and, instead, to choose to plead guilty without regard for the merits of the charge."

"Imagine your own daughter mistakenly arrested for a crime she didn't commit in a foreign county where she doesn't speak the language," McDonough said. "You would hope and pray the court system there would be interested enough in the truth to provide her with an interpreter so she could explain her innocence."

Plaintiffs' co-counsel Kevin Hudson said the decision to file the lawsuit was not so much about money as it was "to point out to state and local governments that any person coming into the court system without the ability to speak English should have interpreter services that will provide meaningful access to the court system."

Roseann Duenas Gonzalez, director of the Arizona-based National Center for Interpretation, Testing, Research and Policy, wrote in a statement that the settlement speaks volumes.

"This settlement is a clear victory for the rights of limited- and non-English-speaking persons to access the courts on equal footing with English-speaking persons," she said. "Interpreter costs should be viewed as an integral part of court management."

Enriquez had been charged with simple assault and appeared four times in Sessions Court before all charges ultimately were dismissed. The court then charged him costs for Weissenberg's interpreting.

Bradley County General Sessions Court now uses a certified interpreter on an "as-needed" basis as determined by Judge Sheridan Randolph, County Court Clerk Gayla Miller said.

The court pays the interpreter $50 per interpretation per charge, which it then bills to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Grant money covers the interpreter fees, and defendants do not foot the bill for interpreters, Miller said.

Because Enriquez' claim was settled separately, Weissenberg's portion of the suit -- that Bradley County owes him thousands of dollars in fees for interpreter services in other cases -- will be filed again in Bradley County Circuit Court this week, McDonough said.

"Before we had a good case. Now we have a better case because they settled," Weissenberg said. "They just gave me a bigger stick."

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