The Language of Law: Professor translates for Common Pleas defendants

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 31, 2006

Not everyone who works in the courts is a judge or a policeman; sometimes, they are college professors.

Ohio University Southern’s Dr. Dave Lucas, associate professor of communication studies, serves as a Spanish translator for local courts and law agencies.

In 1990, Lucas came to Ironton to teach Spanish at OUS. In the past decade and a half, he has made 45 trips to South America, primarily Mexico. Many of the trips were academic and some were for visits to the Ironton Rotary counterpart in Mont Morellos.

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It was a conversation in the mid-90s with Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Richard Walton that got Lucas involved with the courts. They were discussing that the police and courts were occasionally dealing with people who had either basic or no English skills.

“There hadn’t been many cases like that but he had the foresight to sit down and talk about it with me,” Lucas said. “In 1998, we had traffic stops by the state police and the sheriff’s office and finally, Judge Walton came to me and said ‘I want to get ahead of this, let’s get certify you as a court translator.”

Lucas learned to speak Spanish when he was growing up in farm country in southern Indiana. Migrant workers would come to pick melons and tomatoes for a canning company, and he and his family would make sure the migrants had proper housing and got paid on time.

When Lucas first starting working for the court, it was rare when he got called, usually during the night to make sure Spanish speakers were aware of their Miranda rights, he said. Now, he and a second translator, Gonzalo Castillo, work in the common pleas court, both municipal courts, the jails and with all the law officers in Lawrence County.

“A lot of times he will be in one court and I’ll be in another,” Lucas said. “Because these incidents have increased in the last few years and especially in the past few months.”

The translators are paid as part of court costs, so the service doesn’t cost the taxpayers.

Lucas said most of the traffic stops are for people who are headed somewhere else and were just passing through when they had something like a traffic accident.

Many times, the situation is emotionally heightened by cultural misunderstandings. In an incident last year, Lucas was brought by the Ohio State Highway Patrol to an accident on U.S. 52 by the Grandview Inn. The women in the van were crying hysterically and the police didn’t understand why.

“These people were from Guatemala and there, a lot of time the police just cart you off and you disappear,” Lucas said, adding he explained that these were nice police and it was just a traffic accident. Once they understood, Lucas said they got happy and shook the police officer’s hand.

“It was just an interesting experience to watch them go from such sorrow and fear to happiness,” he said.

In another incident, a flea market purchase caused a bit of a situation. Four Mexican men bought decorative knives and swords at the flea market in Proctorville and then stopped at a drug store so one of them could wire some money back home. The other men were in the parking lot looking over their purchases, which made employees think they were about to be robbed.

“It’s a natural misunderstanding,” Lucas said. “The police realized they didn’t have real weapons and I explained to the men that they had to put them in the trunk.”

Lucas said that one of the things he has to watch out is that he doesn’t become an advocate for the person.

“That’s the lawyer’s job, our job is to translate what is said by the police and the person,” Lucas said. “You have to make sure you don’t take up for them, or change the story or make excuses for them.”

Lucas said that the courts have been very accommodating when it comes to making sure the civil rights of the people are enforced.

“There may be other difficulties in Lawrence County but they get the idea of making sure everyone’s rights are respected and there isn’t any kind of prejudicial action going on in the court system,” Lucas said. “I can’t think of one person who has stepped out of line or tried to throw up road blocks for these folks. It’s an admirable thing they are doing.”