Legal Supplier

Google translations don't pass U.S. Constitutional muster

By Staff

Google Translate is not an appropriate way for police to obtain consent for a search, Brampton lawyer-linguist Suzanne Deliscar tells

A recent U.S. ruling by a court in Kansas tossed out evidence obtained in the search of a man’s car after he consented during a conversation over Google Translate because he could not speak English.

“It was definitely the right decision to find the evidence inadmissible,” says Deliscar, principal of Deliscar Professional Corporation, a law firm that offers services in English, French and Spanish. “Google Translate does not have guaranteed accuracy, so it would have been difficult to find the consent valid.”

The case involved a Mexican national with a valid U.S. visa who was pulled over by police. Since he only spoke Spanish, the man pulled out his laptop to conduct a conversation. In the process, he agreed to a search of the car, even though he was legally entitled to refuse, resulting in the seizure of a large quantity of cocaine and methamphetamines.

However, a judge ruled the evidence inadmissible, finding the search breached the man’s the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans searches without warrants.

Searches without warrants are allowed under U.S. law, so long as they are consented to knowingly, freely and voluntarily, but the judge found the consent given did not meet that standard thanks to the way Google Translate changed the meaning of the officer’s questions.

According to the decision, the police officer’s question “Can I search the car?” produced a result in Spanish that was more like “Can I find the car?”

Deliscar says she can understand why some may think the service may prove useful for facilitating communication between law enforcement and members of the public where language is a barrier.

“Everyone has a phone, so it appears very convenient,” she says.

But, Deliscar adds, anyone who speaks more than one language and has used Google Translate can easily spot errors.

“You can get many literal, nonsensical translations, where the word is just exchanged,” she says. “When you’re interpreting, context is really important so that you get the meaning across. Literal translations and interpreting are sometimes wrong."

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