Dickinson County District Court is seeing a huge uptick in cases where interpreters are needed.

Since January, district court has had 87 hearings requiring a Spanish interpreter, three needing a Russian interpreter and three requiring a sign language interpreter.

Cindy MacDonald, clerk of the district court, said she couldn’t put an exact number on the increase because interpreters are lumped into the “witness fee” line item in the court budget.

“But just by experience and knowing how many interpreters we’ve had in the past, this year is unusual. We’ve never had this many,” MacDonald said. “I don’t know if it’s due to multiple people being in a vehicle when it’s pulled over or whether the drug task force is pursuing people on the interstate, but a lot of criminal defendants we have are ones who were pulled over on I-70 and it relates to drug charges.”

MacDonald met with Dickinson County Commissioners in work session Thursday to tell them her department may be over budget by the time the end of year rolls around. Unexpected costs, like the number of times interpreters were needed and more jury trials than usual, could send the district court budget in the red.

Except for employee wages and associated employee costs, the district court budget comes from Dickinson County.

“With everything we’re planning on for the rest of the year, I could be $6,000 over budget,” she said. “In my 16 years here, I’ve never been over budget.”

MacDonald budgets $1,500 for each jury trial. Three already have taken place in 2018, but nine currently are scheduled through the end of the year.

In 2017, there were only four trials total.

While it’s likely those trials might not take place due to plea agreements in criminal cases or civil settlements, they are on the docket right now.

Interpreters costly

Whether a case goes to trial or not, numerous hearings take place. With an increased number of criminal defendants and parties in civil cases needing interpreters, costs are ramping up.

So far in 2017, MacDonald has paid out $8,400 for interpreters, but only $7,000 was budgeted and there’s still four months remaining.

And just because someone speaks the language doesn’t make him or her qualified to be a court interpreter. The individual must be familiar with court terms to accurately relay information to the defendant.

“It’s every defendant’s constitutional right to have somebody who can speak their language that they can understand, which is why we need specific interpreters who understand legal terms and can speak fluently,” MacDonald said. “They listen to the person speak and then tell the court exactly what the person said, then repeat what the Court (Judge) tells him, going back and forth the whole time. The interpreter has to have a great focus. I have all the respect in the world for interpreters who can do that in a court setting.”

In the past, the court tried using local people who know the language, but the individuals were not proficient in legal language.

“We didn’t know if they were saying everything they needed to say,” she explained.

“Fortunately, we have a Spanish speaking judge in Geary County and one time when she was over here on a case we found out the interpreter wasn’t doing it correctly,” MacDonald said.

Most Dickinson County cases that involve an interpreter are for Spanish speakers so the court often uses one individual from the Manhattan area.

“When he comes here, it’s almost always a flat $211,” MacDonald said. That typically involves a 30-minute hearing plus mileage.

With multiple hearings, the dollars can add up. Two jury trials that were scheduled this year — that ended up “going out” (not taking place) — involved Spanish-speaking defendants.

“I can’t imagine how much those would have cost. The interpreter would have been in court eight hours a day,” she said.

Finding interpreters

Two cases that were resolved without a trial involved three Spanish-speaking co-defendants who were traveling in the same vehicle when they were stopped on I-70. Each defendant was facing the same set of charges and each defendant had to have his own interpreter.

“One interpreter could not speak for all three of them,” MacDonald said. “Those two cases alone had 25 hearings, so our interpreters had to travel here for 25 hearings.”

Interpreters also are sometimes needed for civil cases, domestic or small claims proceedings.

“One case needed a Russian interpreter. There are no really good Russian interpreters in Kansas,” MacDonald said.

In that case, the court utilized the services of LanguageLine, a vendor. To help fill the language void, the Supreme Court put together a committee on language access that compiled a list of interpreters all Kansas counties can utilize.

“We can either video conference or phone conference them and they can interpret for us. It’s not always the most favorable option. We like to have the interpreter here. That way if the defendant needs to speak with the interpreter off the record they can do that, but there are times we have no other choice.”

Sometimes, just finding an interpreter who speaks the language doesn’t solve the problem, especially if the defendant speaks a specific dialect.

“So not only do we just have a Spanish interpreter, we need one who knows different dialects,” MacDonald said. “It’s a struggle and it’s not just a struggle here.”

The interpreter also may have to deal with documents.

“Recently, two co-defendants needed their plea agreement interpreted so they knew what they were signing. The interpreter spent time interpreting that document and writing it out. That was a $400 expense right there,” MacDonald said.

Some larger counties — typically those with large percentages of people who speak a common foreign language — have added an interpreter to their staff, whether to help someone make a payment at the counter or go into the courtroom.

That’s not feasible here because the caseload isn’t high enough to justify it.

“In the past, we’ve only needed an interpreter a few times a year. Now it’s at least once a month and we think it’s going to be even more as the years go on,” she said. “It’s always a topic when I attend conferences. It’s a problem statewide and a nationwide issue.”

Contact Kathy Hageman at

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