The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday that police in must explain the state's implied-consent law to motorists in a language that they understand.
In a 4-3 decision, the court overturned German Marquez' conviction for refusal to take an alcohol breath test because the man, who spoke only Spanish, did not understand the consequences.
The ruling compels police officers to use a language that suspects understand when informing them the law requires a breath test. The decision could have a wide effect in New Jersey, which has 1.75 million immigrants, about a quarter of whom do not speak English fluently or at all, according to Census statistics.The ruling came from a 2007 DWI case in which Marquez, from El Salvador, claimed that he refused to take a breath test because he did not understand the arresting officer's instruction that the test is legally required. Marquez speaks only Spanish.
NJ.com reports that the majority decision, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, directed the state Motor Vehicle Commission and Attorney General's office to develop methods to inform non-English speakers about the breath-test requirement. That information is now relayed to suspects in English through an 11-paragraph statement that is read by a police officer.
Marquez was arrested in 2007 for rear-ending another car in Plainfield. Initially the officer asked in English for Marquez to show his license. When the officer repeated the request in Spanish, Marquez complied.
According to a report at Philly.com, after Marquez was read a statement in English explaining the consequences of refusing the breath test, he shook his head and pointed to his eye, which the officer considered uncooperative. As a result, he was charged with driving while intoxicated and refusing to take a breath test. Until Monday he had lost appeals in lower courts.
Marquez said that he had not understood what police were reading to him and that he had taken his driver's license exam in Spanish. He later testified through an interpreter that he had taken two Percocet tablets for pain associated with an eye injury, and that the painkiller made him sleepy and dizzy.
The Attorney General's office strongly disagreed with the ruling.
"There are over 150 different languages spoken in New Jersey...," said spokesman Peter Aseltine. "This ruling effectively provides an immunity claim in a prosecution for violating the refusal statute for any drunk driver who speaks a language that the officer is unable to identify or translate."
He said New Jersey won't appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, since the case involves state law. Marquez's conviction on the driving while intoxicated charge was upheld.
— BOB HOLT, NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM