E-Newsletter Edition: Novemer 7, 2007
Response Provided By: Brian S. Batterton, J.D.
Always note that state law may be more restrictive on police power than the U.S. Constitution.
Does municipal liability exist for failure to train in rudimentary Spanish? In other words, can an agency be liable for a suspect’s injury or wrongful prosecution as a result of an inability to give Spanish commands?.
The short answer is that, as long as the officer’s level of force was objectively reasonable, there would most likely be no liability for an officer or agency for failing to give commands in a foreign language. Similarly, as long as probable cause existed for an arrest, an officer or agency would not be liable for an unlawful arrest simply because the agency/officer could not interview the suspect in a foreign language.
To illustrate the points above, we look to a case out of United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. In Rivera v. Granucci et. al., Rivera, who spoke only Spanish, was arrested for Burglary.i On the scene, two passersby, who spoke both Spanish and English, attempted to translate and explain that Rivera was not the correct suspect. The police did not listen to the witnesses and took Rivera to jail. The charges were later dropped against Rivera. Rivera subsequently sued the officers for false arrest, malicious prosecution and violation of Due Process. The court held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they had probable cause to arrest Rivera at the time of the arrest. The police were not required to listen to the explanation offered by the people trying to interpret for him.
Another case that illustrates this point is Acosta, et. al. v. Ames Dep’t Stores, et. al.ii In this case, a store security guard detained Acosta for shoplifting and called the police. Officers arrived, spoke to the security guard who alleged to have witnessed the shoplifting, and arrested Acosta. The charges were later dropped. Acosta sued for unlawful warrantless arrest under § 1983 as well as false arrest under state law. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals found that officers had probable cause to arrest Acosta. Therefore, the officers had no duty to interview other Spanish speaking witnesses on the scene. Since probable cause existed, the officers were given qualified immunity.