Police block off an area on South Florissant Road outside the Ferguson Police Department on March 12, 2015 in Ferguson, MO.Photo: Getty
Google Translate is a useful tool for some quick and easy translations, but a US federal judge in Kansas ruled this week that the machine translation service isn’t good enough to allow a person to consent to a police search.
Omar Cruz-Zamora, a Mexican native in the US on a legal visa, had his vehicle searched by police after engaging in a conversation with them through Google Translate. They found 6kg of cocaine and methamphetamines in his car, but he will now be able to suppress charges related to the search because it doesn’t hold up to the constitutional burden for consent.
Per court documents, Cruz-Zamora was pulled over by police in Kansas last September while driving from Denver to Kansas City. He asked the officer, Ryan Wolting, if he spoke Spanish, which Wolting did not. The officer took Cruz-Zamora back to his squad car and started using Google Translate to communicate with him, and eventually issued him a warning for driving with a suspended registration before sending him on his way.
As Cruz-Zamora started to head back to his vehicle, Wolting called him back to the car to ask him several more questions through the broken Spanish translation provided by Google Translate. After more questioning, Cruz-Zamora revealed he had $US7,700 ($10,341) on him to purchase a car that he intended to take to Mexico. At that point, Wolting asked to search the car, to which he testified Cruz-Zamora responded, “Yeah, yeah, go.” After digging through the vehicle, he discovered the stash of drugs.
Here’s the thing, though: the result from Google Translate for the phrase “Can I search the car?” is pretty questionable. Here’s how the court explained it in the decision, per Quartz:
Typed into Google Translate, “Can I search the car” translates to “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” When put in reverse order into Google Translate, “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” translates to “Can I find the car.” …while “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” is a literally correct interpretation, it is not the question [the officer] intended to ask defendant.
There were plenty of tells along the way that made the search seem fishy, as well. The officer testified that, on multiple occasions, Cruz-Zamora said that he did not understand the question, even when asked through Google Translate. Wolting also told the court that he didn’t know that a live translator was available to him at the time.
The case is not exactly precedent setting. As TechCrunch notes, it’s likely that police could conduct a search with consent obtained through Google Translate if the person provided another form of consent, like opening their trunk or doors for the officer. But it is certainly a victory for Cruz-Zamora and others who may feel pressured by police to consent without fully understanding their rights or what is happening.