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Federal Court Suppresses Evidence Where Consent to Search Vehicle Obtained Via Google Translate

by Christopher Zoukis

A federal judge in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas threw out evidence found during a warrantless search of a vehicle when “consent” was obtained from a non-English speaker via Google Translate. The June 4, 2018, opinion found that the defendant did not give unequivocal consent and that it was unreasonable for the officer to rely on Google Translate to obtain consent for the search.

On September 21, 2017, at about 3 a.m., Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Ryan Wolting stopped Omar Cruz-Zamora for a suspended registration.

Cruz-Zamora spoke little English, so Wolting brought him back to his patrol car for questioning. He then used his laptop and Google Translate in order to question Cruz-Zamora. When Cruz-Zamora’s information checked out, Wolting issued him a citation for a suspended registration and told him “Adios.”

But before Cruz-Zamora could get back to his car, Wolting asked him (in English) whether he could ask him a few additional questions. During this second round of questions, which again involved Google Translate, Cruz-Zamora revealed that he had $7,700 in cash on him, which he planned to use to buy a car to take back to Mexico.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the next question typed into Google Translate was “Can I search your car?”

Cruz-Zamora responded to Google’s translation by saying, “Yeah, yeah go.” Wolting then searched the car and found 14 pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine.

Prior to trial on two counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, Cruz-Zamora moved to suppress the evidence. He argued that his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures had been violated. The Government responded that he had given express consent. Cruz-Zamora said he didn’t because he did not understand the translated question to be a request to search his car.

At a hearing on the motion, professional interpreter Sara Gardner testified that “context is very important when performing interpretations,” and that Google Translate offers only a literal translation that does not take context into account. She told the Court that there were at least nine occasions during the stop where Cruz-Zamora did not understand the question. One of those was the all-important question, “Can I search your car?”

Google translates this question to “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” According to Gardner, that is indeed a literal translation, but in Spanish, it is not the question Wolting intended to ask. In fact, Google translates “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” from Spanish to English as “Can I find the car?”

Reviewing the audio, video, and transcription of the exchange between Wolting and Cruz-Zamora, the Court concluded that Cruz-Zamora did not give “free and voluntary” consent to the search. Based on the entirety of the interview, it was clear to the Court that Cruz-Zamora did not fully understand the question he was being asked. As such, the Court concluded that the Government failed to meet its burden of showing that consent was “unequivocal and specific and freely and intelligently given,” as required by the U.S. Supreme Court in Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973).

The Government attempted to salvage the evidence by invoking the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. Under this exception, if an officer acts reasonably and with “objective good faith” on a mistaken belief, then evidence that would otherwise be suppressed remains admissible. Wolting, the Government said, reasonably relied on Google’s translation, and so the harsh exclusionary rule should not apply.

The Court disagreed. Because Google Translate provides only a literal word-for-word translation and does not take context into consideration, it was not reasonable for Wolting to rely on the technology. This was doubly so in this case because live interpreters were available to Wolting during the stop.

“[W]hile it might be reasonable for an officer to use Google Translate to gather basic information such as the defendant’s name or where the defendant was traveling, the court does not believe it is reasonable to rely on the service to obtain consent to an otherwise illegal search,” the Court opined.

Accordingly, the Court granted Cruz-Zamora’s motion to suppress. See: United States v. Cruz-Zamora, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93906 (2018). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Cruz-Zamora



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