Pa. area seeks interpreters for casino crime cases

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) - August 14, 2010

In Northampton County, the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem is being marketed to the Asian community in the New York City area. Casino buses bring more than 1,000 people daily from Chinatown and Flushing, N.Y., to the Lehigh Valley, a region with an Asian population of less than 3 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

But since the nearest court-certified Chinese interpreter is no closer than central New Jersey, 50 or 60 miles away, court officials are at a loss when someone is arrested at the casino on theft or other charges. That has left defendants sitting in court, attorneys unable to communicate with clients and language service bills exceeding $1,000 in a month.

"It was unforeseen," said District Judge Patricia Romig-Passaro, whose Bethlehem office handles cases from the Sands. "It could be a very high expense that we didn't see coming."

Casino officials met last month with representatives of police, prosecution and defense attorneys, the courts, the city and the state gaming board to try to come up with solutions. As a result, officials plan to ask colleges in the area if they have speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese and smaller dialects who could become certified for court interpreting.

"It's in the infant stages now," court administrator James Onembo said. "But we see it as a long-term problem that we'll need to address."

Romig-Passaro said she has gotten 10 cases involving speakers of Chinese dialects in just over a month. Some of those coming on the buses are homeless and lack identification or the ability to make restitution, she said.

"One day, I had in here interpreters from another state, only to find (the defendants) spoke a dialect from the mountain area," Romig-Passaro said.

The cases typically involve minor charges such as theft or receiving stolen property, for example surveillance cameras catching someone pocketing a dropped wallet or grabbing a casino card left in the machine. While state police can use casino employees or guests to talk with suspects, courts are held to a higher standard to avoid problems at appeal.

"What you'd have is after the trial, the defendant would say, 'He didn't say that to me,' " Onembo said.

The Pennsylvania court system says interpreters are used at least 15,000 times a year, most commonly for Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, Arabic and sign language. A certification program was set up in 2004 to ensure qualified interpreters, but only two Chinese dialects are on a master list of interpreters, both covered by one person.

Counties are supposed to rely on the state's master list, but cannot always do so. Philadelphia, for example, contracts with a private company for Asian language services, said Roseann DiPrimio, coordinator of interpreter services for the county, who said several local interpreters are in the process of being certified for the state's list.

Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said Pennsylvania is doing outreach among community groups, professional organizations, and colleges and universities, but more could be done, he said.

"The bottom line is, there is a great need," Heinz said.

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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com

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