Legal Interpreters in Debriefings,
Proffer Sessions, and
Judicial Proceedings
Instituted by the United States

Legal Interpreting Services for Proffer Sessions and Government Debriefings

The Court Interpreter’s Act states that a qualified legal interpreter shall be provided at “judicial proceeding instituted by the United States.” The statute refers to all proceedings, whether criminal or civil, including pretrial and grand jury proceedings (as well as proceedings upon a petition for a writ of habeas corpus initiated in the name of the United States by a relator) conducted in, or pursuant to the lawful authority and jurisdiction of a United States district court. (28 U.S.C. § 1827(j)).

U.S. attorneys’ offices around the country routinely require on-site foreign language interpreting services for proffer meetings, debriefings and depositions involving non-English-speaking defendants in judicial proceedings instituted by the United States. Foreign language telephone interpretation is not appropriate for debriefings and proffer sessions.

But what happens, when informal debriefing of a non-English-speaking defendant is conducted by a government agent, fluent in the defendant’s language, in the absence of an independent foreign language interpreter?

In U.S. v. Acuna-Navarro the government relied on a Spanish-speaking agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to interpret for the Spanish-speaking defendant during debriefing.

The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the defendant’s claim that the government’s failure to provide him with an independent interpreter at his post-plea debriefing violated the Court Interpreter’s Act.

The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that the district court violated the Court Interpreter’s Act. It held that the Court Interpreter’s Act is aimed at formal court proceedings, and should not be extended to the informal debriefings with government agents at issue in this case.

“The government is under no obligation to debrief defendants to see whether they can provide substantial assistance in the prosecution of others. If such debriefings become burdened with the requirements that attach to formal proceedings, the government might become more reluctant to hold such debriefings at all. In any event, even if the Act extended to the debriefing, Mr. Acuna-Navarro has provided nothing suggesting that a court interpreter would have made any substantive difference to the outcome below.”

Regardless, we recommend always using professional court interpreters for debriefings and proffers meetings and sessions. Likewise, we recommend to have proffer letters translated by professional judicial translators and/ or courtroom interpreters.

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in Judicial Proceedings
Instituted by the United States