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Can consent to search be obtained via Google Translate?

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Can consent to search be obtained via Google Translate?

Technological advances over the past decade have occurred at an unprecedented rate. As a result, there have been drastic improvements in machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies in recent years, making many science fiction fantasies a newfound reality. A great example of this is Google Translate, a tool that instantly translates speech.

Within the last few years, Google Translate has become widely available as a free online and mobile app and provides the immediate ability to translate words, both spoken and written, from one language to another. Because it’s so easily accessible, it should come as no surprise that it was recently used by law enforcement to interact with a suspect, resulting in a case that addressed an interesting constitutional question. Specifically, earlier this month, in U.S. v. Cruz-Zamora, the United States Court for the District of Kansas considered the issue of whether a non-English speaking individual can consent via Google Translate to a search of his car by law enforcement.

The case arose from a traffic stop which was initiated because of the defendant’s suspended registration. At the beginning of the encounter, the officer realized that the defendant spoke very little English. He then moved the defendant to his patrol vehicle and began to communicate with him using Google Translate via his car’s laptop. While speaking to him using Google Translate, the defendant allegedly gave the officer permission to search his vehicle, which the officer did, leading to the discovery of illegal drugs.

The defendant later alleged that the search was unconstitutional. During the suppression hearing, the officer admitted that a live translator would have been preferable but none were available. He also admitted that the defendant didn’t always understand his questions.

Two professional interpreters also testified at the hearing, and after reviewing the video and audio recordings of the encounter, both opined that it was clear that the defendant was often confused when responding to questions and didn’t always seem to understand what was being asked of him. They also testified that Google Translate failed to take context into consideration and thus “should only be used for literal word-for-word translations.”

In its opinion, the Court initially explained that it was the defendant’s contention that “any evidence obtained as a result of the car search should be suppressed because he did not understand (the officer) and therefore could not knowingly consent to the search.”

Next, the court determined, based primarily on the testimony of the professional interpreters, that “while it might be reasonable for an officer to use Google Translate to gather basic information such as the defendant’s name or where the defendant was travelling (sic), the court does not believe it is reasonable to rely on the service to obtain consent to an otherwise illegal search.”

The Court explained that although the audio and video recordings of the encounter showed that the defendant had a basic understanding of the questions asked of him, the testimony of the interpreters and a review of the transcript indicated that the defendant’s purported consent to search was invalid. The Court concluded that it did “not find the government ha(d) met its burden to show defendant’s consent was ‘unequivocal and specific and freely and intelligently given.’’

Next the court turned to an alternative argument made by the government: that the good faith exception applied, and thus the evidence should not be suppressed. Specifically, the government contended that the officer acted in good faith since he reasonably relied on Google Translate and its translations. In opposition, the defendant asserted that the officer could not “reasonably rely on a mistake of his own making.”

The Court agreed with the defense, and excluded the evidence:

“(T)he good-faith exception does not apply as it is not reasonable for an officer to use and rely on Google Translate to obtain consent to a warrantless search, especially when an officer has other options for more reliable translations. The government has not met its burden to show defendant’s consent was “unequivocal and specific and freely and intelligently given,”…and the court will not interpret defendant’s compliance with Wolting’s instructions to stand by the side of the road during the search as implied consent, considering the totality of the circumstances. The court finds that application of the exclusionary rule is appropriate in this case, and therefore grants defendant’s motion to suppress.”

The lesson to be learned is that while the technology has dramatically improved in recent years, it’s often far from perfect. Tools like Google Translate are improving by leaps and bounds, but it is ill-advised to indiscriminately relying on them when comprehension is crucial and carries legal ramifications. Technology is not a panacea; it merely supplements hard-earned technical skills and expertise - it doesn’t replace them.

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She can be reached at niki.black@mycase.com.