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SF Woman Settles Lawsuit for Arrest After Police Deny Her a Translator

By Ceylan Pumphrey, Esq. on March 12, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There are certain rights afforded to those arrested for a crime. Some of the most well-known criminal rights are protection from illegal searches and seizures, Miranda rights, and the right to counsel. But, there are also various policies and procedures police officers must follow as well.

For example, in San Francisco, officers are required to provide interpretive services to people who have a primary language other than English. In the case of Dora Mejia, officers didn't provide her with an interpreter, which resulted in her being arrested. Mejia had filed a lawsuit against the officers and city, and recently agreed to a $50,000 settlement.

What Happened?

In her lawsuit, Mejia claimed that her ex-partner attacked her in her apartment and then called the police to report that she had attacked him. By the time officers arrived at the apartment, he had left and Mejia was told to "communicate in English as best she could" after the officers refused to provide her with an interpreter. However, the officers did provide the ex-partner with an interpreter during a phone interview, and his account led to her arrest. Although she only spent one night in jail after prosecutors didn't charge her, she ended up being separated from her 3 children for a month because her ex-partner had obtained a restraining order.

In a report on the case, San Francisco's Office of Citizen Complaints found that officers "had violated department policies on language services." In fact, a police officer spoke to Mejia's 5-year-old daughter, who told the officer that she saw Mejia's partner get on top of her mom and try to kiss her before she pushed him away. The report stated that the police ignored what the child said and prevented Mejia from explaining what happened by not providing her with an interpreter.

Fixing Department Policies

Saira Hussain, Mejia's lawyer, expressed that certain improvements have been made to police policies, which includes requiring immediate translation of statements by non-English speakers and requiring officers to watch a video training them on how to respond to domestic violence.

Commander David Lazar also told the Police Commission that now officers "have a list as to who's certified to respond" to an officer who needs bilingual help (in the past, a dispatcher would just put out a call for volunteers). A police spokesman said that the police department is also "offering department members training on interpreter skills and testing eligible officers to help expand the ranks of the LEP (limited English proficiency) program."

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