Beyond Words - Language Blog

The Law, Language, and Linguaphobia: New Jersey’s DWI Language Ruling

What began almost three years ago in New Jersey as a routine driving while impaired conviction, has slowly escalated into a state Supreme Court case and a rallying cry for both advocates and opponents of increased language assistance for immigrants across the nation. Police arrested New Jersey resident, German Marquez, on September 20, 2007, after he rear-ended another car while driving impaired. Authorities convicted Marquez of driving while impaired (DWI), careless driving, and refusal to take the breath test. This week, the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey ruled that officers must provide instructions in suspects’ native languages.

The case, which started in Plainfield, New Jersey’s, municipal court, revolved around Marquez’s refusal conviction. Marquez, a Limited English Proficient citizen, admitted to both the DWI and careless driving convictions, but he said he didn’t understand the officer’s breath test request at the accident scene because he didn’t speak enough English.

New Jersey’s Chief Justice Rabner delivered the opinion of the Court, stating:

The statute’s obligation to “inform” calls for more than a rote recitation of English words to a non-English speaker. Knowledge cannot be imparted in that way. Such a practice would permit Kafkaesque encounters in which police read aloud a blizzard of words that everyone realizes is incapable of being understood because of a language barrier. That approach would also justify reading aloud the standard statement to a hearing-impaired driver who cannot read lips. We do not believe that the Legislature intended those absurd results. Rather, its directive that officers “inform,” in the context of the implied consent and refusal statutes, means that they must convey information in a language the person speaks or understands.

New Jersey is one of the country’s most culturally and linguistically diverse states. It’s also among the states that offers the driving test in the most languages– Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Is it misleading, or even a double standard, to expect a driver who was allowed to take the driving test in a language other than English to fluently understand English when pulled over? Many commentators have used this court case as an opportunity to rehash old anti-immigrant arguments.

Writing about the court decision for The Star-Ledger, George Berkin states:

Marquez was arrested in the United States. And here, in New Jersey, the official language is English. In the past, the unspoken “agreement” was that immigrants will assimilate — that they will become fully Americans…The court’s ruling is neither good public safety policy, nor helpful in encouraging immigrants to become full participants in our national life.

Berkin’s judgment on the case’s effects on public safety policy are dubious at best. It’s inaccurate to interpret this ruling as an invitation for intoxicated drivers to overtake New Jersey’s roads. Already, recorded interpretations of the breath test request have been made available to state officers, and soon officers will receive printed copies of the instructions and warnings in the state’s most common languages. In effect, the ruling on Marquez’s case prevents future citizens from becoming the victims of unlawful convictions. And a guarantee of equal civil rights (contrary to Berkin’s argument) might even give immigrants a renewed reason to become “full participants in our national life.”

Nevertheless, sentiments similar to Berkin’s continue to spread throughout the nation. Tim James recently ran his gubernatorial campaign on a promise to limit the offered driving tests in Alabama to only English. In April, the Arizona Department of Education announced its crackdown on accented teachers in classrooms learning English. And only a day after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, the 30,000 person Homer Township in Illinois symbolically adopted English as its official language. Officials in Homer Township also declared support for the recent Arizona Law- or “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” — which is one of the strictest pieces of anti-immigration legislation in US history.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what’s causing all this national linguaphobia, but it’s safe to say that many of its manifestations have been misguided or aversively racist. Only a minority will argue that immigrants in the US shouldn’t learn English. So, these discussions should be dominated by the different methods currently available for immigrant language education.

Organizations like New Jersey’s Diversity Dynamics, recognize that English might not be the official language in the United States, but that it remains integral to success in the nation. Diversity Dynamics, which provides resources on the topic of immigrant adult education, states:

The ability to understand, speak, read, and write English as the nation’s common language is crucial to the successful integration of immigrants into our society. Without English, immigrants are locked into low wage jobs, blocked from advancing on the job, denied full access to health and other services, and shut off from contact with the larger society.

Should both the national government and local governments promote more language assistance plans for immigrants and make foreign language interpreters and translators more readily available? We can look at such services as crutches for new immigrants, or we can look at them as gateways to healthy assimilation. We can argue that our parents’ or grandparents’ generations didn’t have or need these services, or we can argue that for every generation, issues surrounding immigration deserve a fresh and progressive approach.