case law update

Officer’s Use of English Was Not Coercive, Says Fifth Circuit

The Fifth Circuit recently concluded that an officer’s use of English to ask a suspect with a language barrier for consent was not coercive.

Officer Christopher Wright stopped driver Gerson Guevara-Miranda. Speaking English, Officer Wright asked to search Mr. Guevara-Miranda’s vehicle. Understanding that Mr. Guevara-Miranda spoke Spanish, Officer Wright gave Mr. Guevara-Miranda a consent form written in Spanish. Mr. Guevara-Miranda consented to the search, which revealed the cocaine later used to charge him with possession with intent to distribute. Mr. Guevara-Miranda plead guilty to that charge, but reserved his right on appeal to challenge the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress the narcotics.

On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Mr. Guevara-Miranda argued that the drugs should have been suppressed as his consent to the search that uncovered them was involuntary because of the language barrier between him and Officer Wright. Mr. Guevara-Miranda’s argument primarily rested on his assertions that Officer Wright’s use of spoken English was coercive because of the language barrier and that he merely “acquiesced” to Officer Wright’s hand signals and did not “cooperate” with Officer Wright’s commands in English because he could not understand them.

The Fifth Circuit was not persuaded. Reviewing the district court ruling for clear error, the court examined the matter under the totality of the circumstances.

In context, the court concluded that Officer Wright’s use of spoken English was not coercive. The type of coercive police conduct the circuit has recognized in the context of obtaining a detainee’s consent to search involves an overt display of authority. But in Mr. Guevara-Miranda’s case, Mr. Guevara-Miranda did not challenge the lower court’s findings that Officer Wright “was not overbearing” and that he “conducted himself in a professional manner throughout the encounter.” Thus, the appeals court concluded that Officer Wright’s use of English was not coercive.

Supporting its initial conclusion, the court looked to the record and found that it “belie[d]” Mr. Guevara-Miranda’s claim that he did not understand Officer Wright’s questions and commands. Specifically, the record indicated that Mr. Guevara-Miranda had completed “the equivalent of sixth grade” in Honduras, indicating his ability to read Spanish and that he responded affirmatively when Officer Wright asked him if he could read the form.

Considering the entirety of the record, which under the relevant legal standard the court was required to view in the light most favorable to the government. Mr. Guevara-Miranda’s arguments concerning the language barrier did no leave a definite and firm conviction that a mistake was made when he consented to the search of his vehicle, the Fifth Circuit held.

The court did not reach the issue of whether a detainee’s consent is involuntary whenever there is a language barrier unless there is evidence the detainee was able to read and understand the written consent form, because Mr. Guevara-Miranda failed to show that the district court clearly erred in finding that he read the form and was aware of his right to refuse consent.

For those primary reasons, and for other reasons discussed in its opinion, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court decision to deny Mr. Guevara-Miranda’s motion to suppress the cocaine found in his vehicle.

Read the full case: United States v. Guevara-Miranda



This case law update was written by James P. Garay Heelan, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: case law update, overcoming language barriers, james p. garay heelan


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