"Google Translate" and the Law of Consent Searches

¿Puedo buscar el auto?


Here's an interesting question I've started to see in Fourth Amendment cases: If an officer asks for consent to search from a non-English speaker, using Google Translate to ask for consent in the person's own language, is the resulting consent valid if there are possible misunderstandings from the translation? And relatedly, does the good-faith exception apply based on the officer's good-faith reliance on the reliability of Google Translate?

This issue came up recently in United States v. Cruz-Zamora, decided by Judge Carlos Murguia of the federal district court in Kansas. The case involves consent to search a car during a traffic stop. The officer typed in "can I search the car" or "can I search your car" into Google translate, which came up with a Spanish translation. When put into Google Translate, "can I search the car" translates to "¿Puedo buscar el auto?" The officer then showed the translated text to the driver, who responded by saying "yeah, yeah go." The officer then searched the car and found a lot of drugs inside it.

The problem is that the English word "search" has several different meanings. It might mean "to look through," for example, or it might just mean "to look for." The officer was trying to ask for consent to search assuming the first meaning; he wanted to look through the car. But Google's translation picked the word "buscar," which means "to look for." As the court explains:

When put in reverse order into Google Translate, "¿Puedo buscar el auto?" translates to "Can I find the car." Gardner [an expert interpreter] testified that while "¿Puedo buscar el auto?" is a literally correct interpretation, it is not the question Wolting intended to ask defendant. Gardner noticed several other instances in the video where Google Translate provided a literal but nonsensical translation. For example, at one point, Wolting likely asked defendant about his driver's license and defendant responded "Do you have a driver for the license?" as if he was repeating the question as translated. And while defendant could guess the intent of the question, Gardner felt that because Google Translate sometimes provides literal but nonsensical translations, it is not a reliable tool for interpretations.

Both interpreters noted there were multiple times defendant responded that he did not understand Wolting's questions. According to Gardner, defendant claimed he did not understand the question on nine different occasions during the stop. And in regard to the specific question as to whether Wolting could search defendant's car, Garcia testified that "¿Puedo buscar el auto?" is not exactly how a Spanish speaker would ask to "search in your car." Defendant, as a native Spanish speaker with very limited English skills, would instead have to make an assumption about what the question actually is.

The court rules that under the circumstances of this case, the government did not meet its burden to show consent:

It is impossible to know how defendant translated "¿Puedo buscar el auto?" and whether he was affirmatively consenting to a search of his vehicle or responding to a perceived command. And while he did exit the patrol car and stand by the side of the road without objection while Wolting performed the search, defendant testified that he did not understand the question, and did not know he had a choice when Wolting told him to stand near the side of the road.

Unlike other cases where the defendants' actions implied that they understood the officers' questions, here it is not so clear. Yes, defendant did demonstrate some basic understanding of Wolting's English questions and commands; however, when reviewing the transcript and considering the imprecise translation, the court does not find the government has met its burden to show defendant's consent was "unequivocal and specific and freely and intelligently given."

The next question was whether the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule could apply based on good faith reliance on Google Translate. Another case had so held, and the governmenr relied on that case here:

The government cites a recent case from the Southern District of Texas in which an officer used Google Translate to look up how to ask for consent to search in Spanish and then asked the defendant "Puedo buscar?" while pointing to his eyes and then to defendant's vehicle. United States v. Salas Antuna, No. 6:16–86, 2017 WL 2255565 at *1 (S.D. Tex, May 23, 2017). In denying defendant's motion to suppress—in which defendant argued his consent was invalid because of the language barrier—the court acknowledged that "Puedo buscar" is not a legally precise translation for "May I search," but that the officer reasonably relied on the Google Translate translation and that the good-faith exception applied. Id. at *5.

The court rules that the good faith exception based on the facts of this case, however:

[T]he court finds that the 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," because defendant claims he did not understand the question, the transcript from Wolting's in-car camera supports defendant's claim that he did not understand many of his questions, and the Google Translate translation allegedly used by Wolting was not a precise translation of "Can I search the car?" Even though defendant answered "Ah, okay. Yeah…yeah. Go. Yes," it is not clear from the evidence what question was asked and what defendant was agreeing to, 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.

Interestiing case. But let me step back a bit.

Off the top of my head, I would be inclined to think that the good faith exception shouldn't appply to reliance on Google Translate at all. It's true that in Herring v. United States, the Court applied the good faith exception when the police relied on an incorrect database entry. The idea was that it wasn't the officer's fault that the database erroneously said a warrant was wanted for Herring's arrest, so you can't fault the officer so much (enough to apply the excluionary rule) to suppress the evidence following from the arrest.

But I see a big difference between relying on a police database of open arrest warrants and relying on Google Translate for a consent search. The police create databases of open arrest warrants to know who they should arreston warrants. The police rely on those databases for that purpose, and they're usually pretty accurate for it.

In contrast, it's common knowledge that Google Translate gets you in the rough ballpark of a literal translation but no better. It's a neat service if you have no alternative and want to get a rough sense of what someone is saying. But no one would think that Google Translate is accurate enough to generate an error-free translation or be anything like the equivalent of an expert interpreter. If the government wants to use such an inaccurate tool to get beyond a language barrier, they can try that. But I don't think the good-faith exception should apply when an entirely predicatble mistranslation occurs.

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  1. Well, it won’t be long before the Google translator returns “you should tell the officer NO” to any request to search.

  2. Back when Miranda was new, law enforcement agencies quickly developed a statement of rights that satisfied the Miranda requirements, and started requiring officer to read the “official” statement, more or less as written, prior to interrogations. Some formulations, as relayed on TV cop shows, included “do you understand these rights as I have read them to you?”

    It seems obvious, now, that law enforcement agencies should develop statements in various languages that officers can read off, that ask the questions in a way that is legally meaningful. For example, in a way that indicates to the detained that they can, in fact, decline consent to search. (If the officer says “I’m going to search the car now” in whatever language, and the detainee says “OK”, that is not meaningful consent and the search should not be considered a consent search.)

    1. Okay, but as to your second paragraph, you can’t expect a street cop to pronounce and inflect the language correctly. This butchering of a language for an official consent to search will be a problem.

      1. Spanish is not particularly exotic or difficult to read or pronounce. You absolutely can expect a street cop to get close enough to be intelligible, as long as the grammar they’re reading is correct. The immediate problem in this case was that the translation was wrong to begin with.

        1. Spanish? Maybe. But at that point, it’s easier to just call the 911 center on your cell phone and have a 911 operator who CAN speak Spanish translate for you. The Coast Guard does something similar to this in difficult cases with a language like Chinese, where a member of the crew may not be fluent (like Spanish), and where they don’t have a translator aboard.

          That the guy let his car be searched invariably was more due to his ignorance of American 4th Amendment jurisprudence than the translation. I am glad the Court applied the exclusionary rule here, though, as a matter of principle, since it wasn’t 100% certain. This court needs to have a sit down session with the one that ruled that asking for “a lawyer dog” wasn’t actually invoking Miranda because it wasn’t perfect English.

      2. ” you can’t expect a street cop to pronounce and inflect the language correctly.”

        Why not? We get them to pronounce and inflect the Miranda warnings…

        1. You said “Spanish and various languages”. In the reply above, I say Spanish may be okay, but Russian or anything more exotic? Probably not.

          1. “You said ‘Spanish and various languages’.”

            No, actually, I didn’t.

            ” I say Spanish may be okay, but Russian or anything more exotic? Probably not.”

            I used to live near a community that had a substantial Russian population. Cops that work there should be ready to encounter people who speak Russian.

            1. Your are being pedantic, you said develop statements in various languages, my apologies for not quoting exactly, but the point still stands. Cops are not expected to be fluent in anything but English, and if a jurisdiction wants them to be, it is up to the elected officials if they want to pay to recruit bilingual officer and hire translators.

              1. “Your are being pedantic”

                Assuming that by “pedantic” you mean “keep pointing out misquotes”, then yes. I’m sure are. (OK, that was overcorrection for a what appears to be a typo. It still amused me, and that’s my purpose for being here.)

                “Cops are not expected to be fluent in anything but English”
                Correct. But they are expected to encounter people who don’t speak English, and, apparently, need something better than Google Translate for some functions. This means having the agencies prepare their staff. The local prosecutors can coach them on what things need careful attention, and then they can get translated statements for those exact things. Nobody cares that they can’t then go on the discuss the recent weather. We cares that they manage to get meaningful consent before they begin a consent search.

                As noted, the problem is not unlike Miranda was, back in the mid-60’s.

                1. Joy. So how many languages do the cops need to support out of the current >100 on earth? And do they have to support every single dialect too?

                  Or we could just establish some language, used by the majority of people in the US, as the common tongue. Require everything to be in that, and everyone to understand it, and no other.

                  1. “Joy. So how many languages do the cops need to support out of the current >100 on earth? And do they have to support every single dialect too?”

                    Just the ones that are spoken as “only languages” by people they are policing.

                    “Or we could just establish some language, used by the majority of people in the US, as the common tongue. Require everything to be in that, and everyone to understand it, and no other.”

                    That language is going to be sign language, because deaf people.

      3. I don’t see pronunciation problems as a plausible barrier. First, most foreign speakers are literate in their own language. I have a life-threatening food allergy and carry a multi-lingual explanation that ends with “Did I just order something that will kill me?”. I don’t have to know how to pronounce the words – I just scroll to the relevant language and show it to the waiter. In most situations, it would be simple (and entirely defensible) to show the suspect the card and have them point to the translated Yes or No answers at the bottom.

        For the minority of suspects who are not literate or for whom you don’t have a pre-printed language card, radios and cell phones work just fine. Get a translator on the line and have the request properly translated. As you point out in a later comment, the odds are good that the local 911 center already has translation services on stand-by.

        1. I don’t see pronunciation problems as a plausible barrier.

          Depends on the language. I can’t speak Chinese, I don’t have the ear for learning Tonal languages. I can’t distinguish between a number of the sounds. And with over 100 languages on earth, no 911 center will have a translator for all of them.

          1. But I bet if you had a recording of someone asking “may I have permission to search your car?” in Chinese, you could learn to differentiate between the Chinese responses that mean “yes” from the Chinese responses that mean “no”, and with enough experience, you might even start to recognize the Korean for “I’m not Chinese, officer”.
            At least you might, if there were a substantial number of people who only speak Chinese who lived or worked in your patrol area.

  3. I think the good faith exception should also hinge on how commonly the foreign language in question is spoken in a given area. It seems reasonable to expect that local PDs train officers to know certain important phrases in Spanish, for example, so Google Translate is not an acceptable substitute. But if the suspect speaks only Malay or Finnish, Google translate might be the only reasonable means of communication.

    1. Better a bright line. What’s your standard for “commonly spoken”? 10% of the public? And what source do we use for how many speak what language…do we use census data or something else? How do we agree on what source?

      1. The notion that cops don’t know where the communities where English is not spoken, but some other language is, seems laughable.
        Seems like something where the prosecutors would huddle with the LE agencies, and get right, if the prosecutors started losing cases because the courts were throwing out evidence seized over a language barrier.
        The key language is English, and the key phrase is “geez, guys, don’t search without a warrant if there’s any doubt a language problem might surface at trial.”

        1. That you expect the court to apply or not apply a good faith exception hinging on how common a foreign language is spoken in a given jurisdiction is laughable. Am I misunderstanding your comment?

          1. “That you expect the court to apply or not apply a good faith exception hinging on how common a foreign language is spoken in a given jurisdiction is laughable. Am I misunderstanding your comment?”

            You seem to be, since you appear to be referring to someone else’s comment rather than mine.

            1. The hazards of commenting on a cell phone…..

  4. I’d suggest that it’s fairly common for Spanish speakers in the US to understand more English than they will attempt to speak and will sometimes fein lack of understanding when they understand perfectly well.

    It does also seem reasonable for police forces in areas with a lot of spanish speakers to somehow equip their officers with some simple stock phrases. You could give them some lessons in a few simple phrases, I doubt many would be necessary. They could even store some phrases in the Officers smartphone, tablet or computer.

    1. An old cop trick is to “think out loud” in English and try to elicit a reaction. For example, by saying “man, I’m going to give this guy every ticket I can, one for speeding, another for bald tires…” It’s pretty hard, in the presence of the badge and the gun, to remain cool as a cucumber and not give away that you don’t understand that you’re about to get hosed.

      1. You clearly have not met many poor first generation Mexicans have you?

        They have super powers with this sort of thing. Pretending you don’t hear your “betters” is a survival skill, and never letting on with any but the most trusted employer is essential. You only get in trouble and for no gain at all so best to pretend. My Irish washerwomen forebears and my Swedish great grandmother who was a head cook in a fine house knew this just as Edgar our landscaper’s irrigation guy who holds his hat in both hands before he speaks to my mother.

        1. Even if those sneaky bastards are pretending they don’t understand English, how does asking them in proper Spanish create a problem?

          1. I think that they should ask for consent using correct usage, my comment was just about mad kalak’s impression.

        2. I can’t comment on anybody’s experience but my own or first hand accounts, but it works. Maybe not always, to your point.

    2. You could even give them cards with the phrases printed on them.

  5. It would be better to just expand the implied consent for impairment testing to include searches. It’s not like the constitution matters anymore.

  6. Or they could use a low-tech printed card. I’m pretty sure a cop can understand “si” and “no”.

    1. This assumes that they are literate. Not always the case.

      1. True, but taking the cases where they are literate in a language other than English out of the equation leaves fewer cases needing exclusionary rule application. That’s a good thing, right?

  7. Interestingly, due to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, the issue is different if the Spanish-speaking motorist is a US citizen or a non-citizen. Also interesting is that English-as-the-national-language hasn’t yet arisen as a topic.

    1. “Also interesting is that English-as-the-national-language hasn’t yet arisen as a topic.”

      ARWP will be on it in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6……

      1. If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Americans.

      2. I’m here!

        1. Here’s your participation trophy.

  8. Lincoln County, KS has part of I-40 to fill its coffers and it is just outside of Salina. While nobody has moved to the place in years, it has two neighboring counties that are >5% Hispanic and to its South and West there are counties more Hispanic than many in Texas. Kansas as a whole is >10% Hispanic and even if it wasn’t it is on a main route, second to US 87, between North Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado.

    All they need is an index card.

  9. “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

    1. “Do you want to come back to my place, bouncy-bouncy?”

  10. It’s time to make it illegal to speak in Spanish anywhere in the United States outside of Puerto Rico.

    1. I feel that some part of the Constitution might get in the way of your plan.

  11. I write detective stories set in contemporary Texas. I often include Spanish phrases and slang. I do not trust Google Translate. Type in a phrase to be translated into Spanish. Then retranslate it into English. The results are often amusing.

  12. True story about Google Translate.

    I needed to serve a summons and complaint on a defendant in Germany. German courts are pretty accommodating about serving process under the Hague Convention. You just fill out a form (with five languages, including English) and send your request to the local court, along with a copy of the Summons and Complaint. No charge.

    Only hitch is you need to send a German translation. My boss said, no problem, just run it through Google Translate. So we used that to create a translated document, and sent that along with the form.

    A month letter, we get a letter back: “Your request was rejected; try again when you have a real translation.”

    So, yeah, it is not the same as a professional translator.

  13. Not to mention the several versions of Spanish available.

    Even in English, if you ask a driver from Great Britain to open the hood on his car, he’ll point out that it’s not a convertible.

    1. Most gas stations don’t sell gas in Australia. Petrol and diesel only. 🙂

      1. But in either case, if you read “may I have permission to search your vehicle?” off a card, they know what you’re asking for.

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