WASHINGTON — A federal investigation has found the North Carolina court system is violating the rights of people who speak little or no English by failing to provide sufficient interpreters.
The U.S. Department of Justice found that, as a result, limited English speakers charged with crimes have had to spend additional time in jail when interpreters couldn't be found. Others have possibly lost custody of their children.
Federal officials say they could file suit against the state if the problems aren't corrected; they also noted that the state's courts have received millions in federal dollars that require compliance with civil rights laws.
Officials with the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts said they were disappointed in the Justice Department's findings, but added that they had limited money for interpreters and felt the examples cited in the 18-page federal report were isolated cases.
The investigation was launched after the Justice Department's civil rights division received complaints alleging discrimination in the courts. Last May, the N.C. Justice Center, a Raleigh-based advocacy group, filed a discrimination complaint with the department on behalf of three nonprofits - Charlotte's Latin American Coalition, Muslim American Society and Vietnamese Society.
While the initial federal investigation appeared to focus on potential violations in civil court cases, the final investigation found that the state court system routinely violates federal laws across civil and criminal cases.
"It's embarrassing," said Todd Nuccio, trial court administrator in Mecklenburg County. "We are the very institution charged with protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of all citizens. This finding reveals that we're actually the ones violating those civil rights.
"The unfortunate part is that these issues have been present for years, and it's only through the actions of the Department of Justice we are now being compelled to do the right thing."
Scope of the need
About 10 percent of North Carolina residents speak a language other than English. The Justice Department said that more than 300,000 Spanish speakers in North Carolina have limited English skills. There are also nearly 4,000 native Vietnamese speakers with limited English skills, 12,000 who speak Chinese languages, and nearly 5,000 Arabic speakers.
The Justice Department found cases in the state where indigent clients were jailed several weeks because the courts could not find a Spanish-speaking interpreter. One lawyer said she saw an assistant district attorney in Eastern North Carolina seek guilty pleas from limited-English speakers by asking, "Leave, yes?"
The Justice Department said the prosecutor was apparently seeking guilty pleas so deportation proceedings could begin. Once they said yes, the prosecutor would then inform the judge the defendants were pleading guilty.
According to lawyers in Wake County, indigent defendants are routinely denied interpreters. Federal investigators reported that a Wake County staff member said he has seen Wake County prosecutors interpret for defendants. Similar reports were made in Durham County.
A Gaston County woman was denied a domestic violence protective order in 2010 because the court didn't provide an interpreter and the woman couldn't explain how her husband had attacked her, the report said. A mother in Wake County lost custody of her two children as a result of a hearing in which she was denied an interpreter.
According to a transcript, the mother had difficulty understanding why she was not granted more time to secure an attorney and an interpreter. She couldn't follow testimony introduced by opposing counsel, including testimony that others sexually abused her child under her supervision.
"At the end of the permanent custody hearing, [the mother] lost custody of her child, though [she] did not understand the result until after the hearing when she spoke with a child service employee," the report found.
State: 'Isolated cases'
The AOC acknowledged receipt of the Department of Justice's findings. Spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said officials have not had sufficient time to review the 18-page report.
"We are disappointed ... but believe DOJ's examples to be isolated cases," she said.
The AOC said last year that it spends about $2.4 million for 207 interpreters speaking 60 different languages.
Their services are offered to indigent defendants in criminal cases and some domestic violence cases. State officials said the courts have repeatedly - but unsuccessfully - sought more money for interpreters. The AOC says it's limited by state law from providing free interpreters in most kinds of civil proceedings. It would cost an estimated $1.4 million to expand the services to cover civil cases, AOC officials said.
Thomas Perez, a U.S. assistant attorney general, said in a letter that state law does not eliminate the state's civil rights obligations under federal law.
The Justice Department has given the courts until March 29 to begin complying. If the courts do not comply, Perez said federal officials will take enforcement actions, including filing a civil suit.