MN Supreme Court affirms conviction of Lopez-Ramos

In a 4-3 decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court this week affirmed Judge Gordon Moore's decision to affirm the conviction of Cesar Rosario Lopez-Ramos, who is accused of first-degree criminal sexual conduct against a 12-year-old girl.

In May 2016, Lopez-Ramos was charged, and during the subsequent investigation, the victim and her parents identified Lopez-Ramos as the only suspect. Police officers made contact with Lopez-Ramos, who agreed to give a statement at the Prairie Justice Center. The AT&T LanguageLine was called for a Spanish interpreter, and during the interview, Lopez-Ramos allegedly admitted to the officer that he had sexual intercourse with the victim on one occasion.

When the case went to jury trial, the defense for Lopez-Ramos stated they 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.

According to the website, the AT&T LanguageLine provides interpreting services to government agencies across the country, including police/fire, schools, social services, and courts. 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 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.  
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. 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.

The Minnesota Supreme Court narrowly confirmed, but the three dissenting Justices  believe testimonial statements of witnesses absent from trial are admissible only where the declarant is unavailable, and only where the defendant has had a prior opportunity to cross-examine. In their opinion, they would reverse Lopez-Ramos’s conviction and remand for a new trial. At such a trial, the State could either offer the live testimony of the AT&T interpreter, or have a different interpreter in the courtroom translate Lopez-Ramos’s recorded statement.

Because interpreters are used heavily in the Nobles County District Court, this case and the results could have serious implications if the defense chooses to seek relief through the US Supreme Court. Whether it will do so remains to be seen.

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