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People v. Nguyen

Supreme Court of Colorado

October 2, 2017

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
Hung Van Nguyen. Defendant-Appellee

         Interlocutory Appeal from the District Court Denver District Court Case No. 16CR3757 Honorable Brian Whitney, Judge

          Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellant: Beth McCann, District Attorney, Second Judicial District Victoria M. Cisneros, Deputy District Attorney Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee: Douglas K. Wilson, Public Defender Karin B. Williamson, Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado

          OPINION

          EID JUSTICE

         ¶1 Defendant Hung Van Nguyen, who only speaks Vietnamese, waived his rights as provided by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966), after they were translated to him by a chaplain for the Denver Police Department. The trial court ruled that the defendant's waiver was voluntary, but not knowing and intelligent, because the translation could be considered "confusing." The court therefore suppressed Nguyen's statements.

         ¶2 The People brought this interlocutory appeal, and we now reverse the trial court's suppression order. The question here is whether the translation "reasonably convey[ed]" to Nguyen his rights under Miranda. See People v. Mejia-Mendoza, 965 P.2d 777, 781 (Colo. 1998). Primarily at issue is whether the translation, which stated that if Nguyen waived his right to be silent, "[a]ll you say will and may be used as evidence in court, " reasonably conveyed the Miranda warning that anything he said could be used against him in court. We conclude that it did. By informing him that his statements could be used in court, the translation included the concept that the statements could be used against him (as well as for him) in court. The fact that the warning may have left open the possibility that Nguyen's statements could be used in his favor did not countermand the fact that they could be used against him. Secondarily, we address whether the translation reasonably conveyed to Nguyen the warning, as required by Miranda, that if he could not afford an attorney one would be appointed for him prior to questioning. We conclude that it did. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's suppression order and remand the case for further proceedings.

          I.

         ¶3 The following facts come from the proceedings before the trial court and appear to be undisputed. A witness told police that "Hung" had stabbed the victim. Riding in a patrol car, the witness directed officers to a home where he believed Hung was located. The witness gave officers a phone number he said belonged to Hung, which an officer called. Nguyen came out of the home, and the witness positively identified him as Hung. Nguyen was handcuffed, transported to the police station, and interrogated. ¶4 Nguyen spoke only Vietnamese. The questioning officer, Detective Vacca, called in Father Dang, a precinct chaplain who speaks Vietnamese, to act as an interpreter. Father Dang was not a certified Vietnamese interpreter. Detective Vacca read Nguyen his Miranda rights one by one, and Father Dang followed with a translation. The exchange, in relevant part, occurred as follows:

DETECTIVE VACCA: [S]o you have the right to remain silent.
FATHER DANG: Uh . . . you have the right to be silent . . . silent, alright?
DETECTIVE VACCA: You understand that?
FATHER DANG: Understand?
HUNG NGUYEN: Yes.
. . . .
DETECTIVE VACCA: Anything you say can be used as evidence against you in court. You understand that?
FATHER DANG: All you say will and may be used as evidence in court, understand?
. . . .
HUNG NGUYEN: Yeah.
DETECTIVE VACCA: Thank you . . . Uh . . . you have the right to talk to an attorney . . .
. . . .
DETECTIVE VACCA: . . . The right to talk to a lawyer before questioning and have him present during questioning, you understand that?
FATHER DANG: Obviously you have right to talk to a lawyer who represents you before you answer the questions or to let that person represents you before the questions . . . during questioning, understand?
HUNG NGUYEN: Yes.
FATHER DANG: Yes.
DETECTIVE VACCA: If you cannot afford a lawyer one will be appointed for you without cost before questioning. You understand that?
FATHER DANG: And if you do not have money to hire an attorney the court will instruct you, will appoint a person to you at no cost to represent you before asking questions, understand?
HUNG NGUYEN: Yes.
. . . .
DETECTIVE VACCA: Ok, so I just want to be clear, you understand your Miranda rights and you don't have to talk to me, you can talk to a lawyer instead.
FATHER DANG: Because we want you to understand that you have the right to hire an attorney to represent you and you do not need to ...

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