Philadelphia Criminal Law News

Court Struggles To Communicate With Juan Jose Gonzalez Luna

Juan Jose Gonzalez Luna, 42, was charged with drug trafficking after allegedly transporting a shipment of cocaine in his car from Las Vegas, Nevada to the Philadelphia area, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. But the deaf, mute, and illiterate suspect has stretched the limits of Montgomery County Court's abilities to ensure due process as it attempts to use relay interpreting to communicate with Luna.

With relay interpreting, one court interpreter translates what is said into American Sign Language while a second interpreter tries to pantomime the ASL in a way that may be easily understood by Luna. For instance, an interpreter mimed the motion of banging a judge's gravel and pointed his other hand towards to ceiling to convey that Luna's case was going to be heard at a higher-level court.

But many remain unsure whether Luna has understood everything that has happened in Montgomery County Court. Although he has shown some limited ability to express himself, Luna does not know any languages, including written English, Spanish or American Sign Language.

It is a rare issue for U.S. courts to try and accommodate defendants with a limited understanding of language, and the court system has not yet come up with a definite way of handling cases like Luna’s. Most courts typically avoid the problem by declaring such individuals as incompetent to stand trial. Incompetence generally means the defendant is not adequately able to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings.

And even with ASL and relay interpreting, the process for cases like Luna’s becomes time consuming and expensive and risks inaccurate communication by legal standards.

“The law is a language-based system,” said Michele LaVigne, a scholar and lawyer from the University of Wisconsin Law School. “Drop someone in who can’t access that immediately, and we still don’t know what to do with them.”

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