The confusing and mysterious world of being an imputado

What is an imputado? So many politicians in Spain are imputados that a recently arrived Martian might assume you have to be an imputado to be a politician.

Of course, an astute Martian who did a little bit of homework would discover that most of these politicians became politicians before becoming imputados. Said astute Martian might reach the conclusion that being an imputado is some kind of elite status among politicians or at least recognition for long service in the profession. After all, imputados quite often have long political careers behind them and many friends in high places.checkmate

To “impute” an offence to…

In actual fact, an imputado is a suspect in the investigation stage (fase de instrucción) of a criminal proceedings during which the investigating judge (juez instructor) gathers the evidence for the trial stage (juicio oral). To following the correct Spanish usage, the judge “imputes” or attributes an offence to a suspect. And while being an imputado may hint at criminal responsibility, you still haven’t officially been “charged” with anything. The judge just thinks you might have committed the offence in question and wants to investigate further.

Ambiguous legal status of the imputado

While the purpose of the imputación is to guarantee the suspect’s right of defence by allowing representation by a lawyer and ensuring the right to not be compelled to self-incriminate and access to the proceedings, it is a little ambiguous. Your legal status doesn’t change, but what ends up happening to you depends on what the judge discovers and decides. In popular usage, however, it feels about the same as being charged does in English — people assume the imputado is accused of something and already on trial, which is not the case.

To muddy the waters a little further, an imputado can also be summoned as a witness (en calidad de testigo), although the judge may still decide to charge them later on. However, even though as a witness your situation is a little different (e.g., witnesses aren’t represented by lawyers and are obliged to tell the truth), most people still casually assume you’re already facing trial.

Once an imputado, soon maybe something else

Politicians especially feel that being an imputado has too negative a stigma to it. They have gone so far as to propose replacing the term imputado with another with a less negative connotation (e.g., encausado, investigado or testigo asistido), at least up until the point in the proceedings when the judge has firmer evidence.

Good luck to those politicians, although I suspect theirs is a lost cause. We’ve come to automatically assume that any word — known or otherwise — we hear associated to Spanish politicians must be negative. I’m sure any new label will soon have the same negative connotation as imputado.

The imputed royal: two firsts for Spanish legal history

Princess Cristina recently became Spain’s first royal imputada when she was required to appear before the judge in relation to a corruption case involving, among others, her husband, Inaki Urdangarin. She was actually summoned to appear on two occasions, the first time around, though, the public prosecutor smartly rejected the judge’s order and saved her from having to give evidence, which was apparently another first — never before in Spanish legal history had anyone been “desimputed” like this.

When she did end up appearing before the judge the other weekend, the sky didn’t fall in, so we were all left wondering what all the kafuffle was about and why the powers that be did not want Princess Cristina to appear in court. Of course, her and her family’s name have been dragged through the mud a bit, but I don’t think the act of appearing before the judge made it worse. The ambiguity of the legal status of the imputado/a probably contributed to the confusion, though. Imputado is a dirty word in Spanish as far as the press and the public goes.

The first time Princess Cristina was summoned, some news outlets did report in English that she had been “charged” with something, which, especially given that then the judge only wanted to interview her as a witness, was probably a little misleading. The second time around, when she was actually to be questioned as a suspect about specific offences (tax fraud and money-laundering), the foreign media seemed to get it right — as far as I saw, no-one was talking about her being charged with anything.

How to translate imputado/as

The safest and most accurate option for translating imputado is probably to talk about a suspect being investigated in relation to a particular offence, case or proceedings. This also makes it easy to deal with people being investigated as witnesses (imputado en calidad de testigo). I wouldn’t completely write off using some version of being charged or calling the imputado the accused as it may work better in some contexts. Given the differences in procedure in the two systems, it is actually a little muddled from some perspectives.

While, strictly speaking, charging someone with an offence comes earlier in the procedure in the English system, for all intents and purposes, you’re probably in the same amount of trouble just as early on in the Spanish system in terms of the end result. Even though the same evidence only turns you into an imputado and only gets you treated as a suspect in one place but charged and accused in another, in both places, you’re still firmly on the road to being tried.

So, while in Spain being an imputado doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll face trial, you could say, “if I were in England, on the basis of the evidence against me, I would already be charged”. In that sense, there is an argument for translating imputado as being charged in certain contexts — although most of the time, it’s undoubtedly more accurate to talk about a suspect being investigated.

Another option might be to translate the verb imputar as “impute”, although this may not be such a good idea as “impute” appears to be used for attributing or imputing responsibility to third parties because of the relationship between them (parent-child) (LAW.COM).”

Misuse in Spanish

As well as being misunderstood in terms of its meaning in Spanish (popularly assumed to be a synonym of acusar/acusado — to charge, the accused), the term imputar/imputado is also widely misused in Spanish in terms of form. The media often reports that someone has been “imputed of an offence” when, in fact, offences are imputed to suspects (Alcarez and Hughes). Other common but convenient misuses along this line are things like “imputed politicians” and “civil servant imputed in a corruption case”.

Alcarez and Hughes suggest not making the same mistake in translations, although I’m not sure this is the best advice for all contexts, especially if you’re using less direct and more target-language friendly terms such as “investigated as suspect in relation to”. It obviously depends on what term you’re going to use — you can only really follow the source text in this way if you are using target terminology that also follows the same structure.

Related terms of interest

Testigo, acusado, condenado, procesado and indultado, most of which are defined here (in Spanish).



Miguel Ángel del Arco Torres (ed.) (2009) Diccionario Básico Jurídico.

Thomas L. West III (2012) Spanish-English Dictionary of Law and Business 2nd edition

Enrique Alcaraz Varó and Brian Hughes (2007) Diccionario de Términos Jurídicos, A dictionary of Legal Terms, 10th edition

Spanish procedure:

Proposed change to the term:‘imputado’-por-‘encausado’/

English procedure:

Written by Rob

Rob Lunn is a freelance legal translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English.

5 comments to “The confusing and mysterious world of being an imputado”
  1. Rob, thanks for taking the time to write and share such an interesting and useful article. I really enjoyed reading it and am sure I’ll come back to it again in the future.

    • Cheers, Gwen! And do let me know if you come up with or across anything different in your travels.

  2. Not a lawyer, but read a lot. Quite proficient in Spanish for a non-native speaker, especially with respect to written forms. Serendipitously found your site, and this article on indultados.

    My first thought would be that they are those who have been arraigned, although I realize that this is not a one for one definition. Perhaps saying that they have been named a party to a criminal proceeding would come close to putting a precise definition around it; not having necessarily been charged with a crime, but having been named by the court as being deemed essential to such a criminal proceeding. This would seem to cover material witnesses as well as those who have been indicted and those who might be named as unindicted co-conspirators. While this fails to provide a single noun as a translation, it seems that it would be broad enough to cover all of the legal situations that an indultado might be caught up in. Or have I gone way off track in thinking that this generalization of being named a party to a criminal proceeding is either too broad (?), or not broad enough (doubtful, given its generality). What do you think?

    • I think options like “named party to a criminal proceeding” are definitely the way to go when accuracy is important. You can tailor them to be descriptive enough for the uninitiated, and they avoid possible misunderstandings that using terms with established meanings in different jurisdictions (e.g., arraignment) can lead to.

      I wouldn’t say options like these are going too broad either. As stated in the post, the concept is somewhat ambiguous in Spanish and even from a legal point of view. It’s a kind of legal holding pattern.

      Of course, with this particular term you often have to make a distinction between imputados who are suspects as opposed to witnesses, but that’s easy enough to work in to a descriptive translation in most cases I think.

      I don’t usually worry too much about not finding one-word renderings where accuracy is the goal. You can normally find a way to work the term into the translation elegantly enough, even though it is half a description. The nature of the problem means you’re unlikely to find a one-word translation anyway.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Pingback: Legally Yours from Spain | The confusing and my...

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