INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Supreme Court has thrown out the cocaine dealing conviction of a Goshen man imprisoned for 15 years because of mistakes made by a Spanish translator.
The court's 5-0 ruling issued Thursday found that Victor Ponce wasn't properly told about his rights when he pleaded guilty to the Elkhart County drug charges in 1999. He's currently serving a 40-year prison sentence.
The Supreme Court determined that translation errors by the court interpreter left Ponce, a Spanish speaker, not properly advised of his rights to a jury trial, to confront witnesses and not to testify against himself, before pleading guilty.
Justice Robert Rucker wrote for the court that providing inadequate translations to defendants who don't speak English well is an injustice that harms the legal system's integrity.
The ruling sends Ponce's case back to the Elkhart County courts for review. He was convicted of delivering cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school in the northern Indiana county.
An attorney for Ponce raised the concerns about improper translations in a 2011 appeal that was rejected both by a county judge and the state appeals court.
While the justices acknowledged that Ponce knew some English, they found he didn't understand the language well enough to comprehend legal terms.
"Ensuring meaningful access to justice requires that all litigants — including those with limited English proficiency — are equally given the opportunity to participate meaningfully throughout the legal proceedings," Rucker wrote.
Since 2003, the Indiana Supreme Court has overseen a program that certifies and sets ethical standards for courtroom translators, The Times of Munster reported.
Certified translators in 22 languages are now available to Indiana criminal defendants.
Rucker wrote in the Ponce ruling that the Supreme Court is considering creating a second tier of "qualified" translators to cover languages for which certified translators are not available.