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Can Cops Use iTranslate to Get Consent to Search? Si...

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on May 18, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

How accurate must a broken translation be in order for actual consent to be granted for a vehicle search? This question was the very center of a recent ruling by the Seventh Circuit which decided that the iPhone's iTranslate app can be used to obtain consent in lieu of warrant for an automobile search.

It does raise a very interesting question, though. What are the limitations on broken speech and consent and what implications will they have on broader civil rights?

The basic facts involve a Spanish-only speaking resident of Florida who was pulled over by a state trooper in Illinois. The trooper became suspicious of a rented car so far out of state and upon watching the driver's strange behavior behind the wheel.

The trooper, Dustin Weiss, and the driver, Pavel Leiva, immediately ran into communication problems. Fortunately, Weiss had a sheet or prepared questions in Spanish back in his patrol car. He went through the entire list of questions and was about to let Leiva leave with a warning. Weiss asked his iPhone to translate "You are free to go" into Spanish and read the output to Leiva. But at the last moment, Weiss had the iPhone translate "Puedo buscar su coche?"

"Si," Leiva replied. The subsequent search revealed a hoard of bogus credit cards and a large supply of illicitly bought goods.

"Puedo Buscar Su Coche?" Versus "Puedo Revisar Su Carro?"

At trial, the issue arose as to the proper translation of "Puedo buscar su coche?" Experts for the defendant argued that the more accurate English analog would of the above Spanish question would be "May I locate your car?" or "May I seek your car?" If officer Weiss were to properly ask for consent to search the vehicle, he should have asked "Puedo revisar su carro?"

The lower court rejected that theory and found that the translation, though erroneous, was close enough to justify consent from Leiva. The circuit court agreed and additionally posited that Leiva could not be heard to say that he was baffled by the translation because it was clear that his car was merely feet away. And even if the translation was erroneous, the totality of the circumstances taken together supported the notion that Leiva had consented to a search of his vehicle.

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