New York Court of Appeals Holds Denial of Coordination Test Due to Language Barrier Not a Violation of Equal Protection and Due Process Rights

–by Sofia Rezvani

Citation: People v. Aviles, 2016 N.Y. LEXIS 3573 (Nov. 22, 2016).

Abstract: The NYPD does not administer coordination tests when a language barrier prevents an officer from communicating the test instructions to a non-English speaking suspect. Defendant Aviles argued that denial of a coordination test because of a language barrier violated his equal protection and due process rights. The Court of Appeals disagreed.


Facts and Procedural History:

Defendant Aviles was arrested after striking a marked New York City police vehicle with its emergency lights on. According to the arresting officer, Aviles had a “strong odor of alcohol on his breath,” demonstrated “slurred speech,” and was “swaying and unsteady on his feet.” Aviles told the officer that he had three Coronas about fifteen minutes prior to the accident. However, Aviles was not given a physical coordination test. The Intoxicated Driver Testing Unit (IDTU) Technical Test Report contained a hand-written line crossing out the “Coordination Test” portion of the report, as well as a hand-written entry that read, “No coord test given,” and “Language Barrier.”  After he was arrested, Aviles was brought to an IDTU, where he consented to a breathalyzer test. The test, which was administered nearly three hours after the accident, resulted in a blood-alcohol level of 0.06, below the 0.08 minimum required for a per se violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1192(2).

Aviles was ultimately charged with driving while impaired and driving while intoxicated. He moved to dismiss the misdemeanor information on the ground that the officers violated his rights under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses by failing to offer a physical coordination test on the basis of a language barrier. Specifically, Aviles argued that while an English-speaking person arrested for driving under the influence would ordinarily receive a coordination test, he was denied this opportunity because of the language he speaks.

The Trial Court granted Aviles’ motion, holding that the failure to provide Aviles with access to potentially exculpatory evidence merely because he speaks a different language was a denial of his federal and state constitutional rights. The Appellate Term reversed, holding that a similar constitutional challenge had recently been rejected by the Appellate Division. A judge of the Court of Appeals granted Aviles leave to appeal, but the Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the decision of the Appellate Term.


Analysis and Rationale:

Judge Garcia delivered the Opinion on behalf of the Court. Chief Judge DiFiore and Judges Pigott, Abdus-Salaam, and Stein concurred. Judge Rivera dissented in an opinion in which Judge Fahey concurred.

The Court began its analysis by holding that Aviles’ equal protection claim was subject to the “rationale basis” standard of review because he did not demonstrate intentional discrimination or that the challenged policy singled out members of a suspect class, as is necessary for a “strict scrutiny” standard of review. Although Hispanics as an ethnic group constitute a suspect class, the Court reasoned that the policy was facially neutral and not based on race, ethnicity, or national original. Rather, the Court held the policy was based solely on a suspect’s ability to speak and understand English, which, by itself, does not implicate a suspect class. The Court also found that the instant case presented no evidence of intentional discrimination, nor any evidence that Aviles’ language was “treated as a surrogate” for his ethnicity or was a mere “pretext for racial discrimination,” as it was determined that the officer’s decision not to conduct a coordination test was based solely on a determination that a language barrier prevented him from administering the test.

The Court then held that the challenged policy withstood rational basis review. In analyzing the policy, it found that both the NYPD and the public have a substantial interest in ensuring the reliability of coordination tests, and that the clarity of the instructions is crucial to the reliability of the results. Because the test evaluates the suspect’s capacity to follow instructions, relies on the training and experience of the administering officer, and is subject to time constraints for accurate results, translation of the instructions through an interpreter is not feasible. The Court also stated that the NYPD has a substantial interest in avoiding the heavy financial and administrative burdens of employing translations services or multilingual officers qualified to administer coordination tests in the myriad of languages spoken in New York State.

Switching over to Aviles’ due process claim, the Court stated that the police, through administration of a coordination test, have no duty to assist a defendant in gathering evidence or establishing a defense and that a defendant does not have the right to have police perform certain investigative steps simply because it may yield helpful information. Additionally, the Court held that while defendants have a constitutional due process right to a qualified interpreter during judicial proceedings, the same right is not implicated during the pre-arrest investigation of suspected intoxicated driving. The Court found that, in any event, the implicated State interests are sufficiently substantial to withstand scrutiny of the policy.

Consequently, the Court affirmed the order of the Appellate Term, holding that the policy did not violate Aviles’ equal protection or due process rights.