The first time a young man from South Seattle — who is quoted anonymously in this story — was held and questioned by police, he was 13.
An officer read him the constitutionally mandated Miranda warning, which says a person has the rights to remain silent and to speak with an attorney. But he asserted neither right, he recalled. He talked to the officer, alone.
“They read [the warning] so fast you don’t really understand,” said the young man, now 18, whom The Seattle Times isn’t naming because he was a juvenile at the time. “You kind of just go with your gut … and that can be kind of scary.”
The Seattle City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on a bill that would, in most cases, require youths in police custody receive legal advice before they can be questioned. The Metropolitan King County Council plans to vote on a similar bill Tuesday that would cover questioning by sheriff’s deputies.
“This is an important step to take … to stop the school-to-prison pipeline,” said City Councilmember Tammy Morales, a sponsor of the Seattle bill, describing the policy as in line with the Black Lives Matter movement because Black youth are disproportionately detained. “Once we send young people into the criminal legal system, it’s hard to get them back out.”
County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, a sponsor of the county bill, added: “We’re a country that takes pride in our constitutional rights and this is a way to ensure that our youth … benefit from their constitutional rights.”
The bills would apply to people under 18 who are provided with a Miranda warning. They would prohibit officers from asking investigative questions until legal counsel was provided. They also would prohibit officers, absent counsel, from requesting consent to search the youth or the youth’s property. The legal consultation could be in person, by phone or by video conference.
The bills include an exception: They wouldn’t apply when officers believe information is necessary to protect life from imminent threat; when delay would hamper that; and when questioning is limited to such matters.
Because the bills would apply only after Miranda warnings, they wouldn’t apply to “Terry stops,” when police briefly detain a person on the street, without immediately arresting them. The bills also wouldn’t apply to “welfare checks,” when police ask whether a person or situation is OK.
An existing state law requires a parent or guardian to be involved when a child is younger than 12. But no law covers minors 12 and older, and no law requires that minors receive legal advice.
Proponents of the Seattle and King County bills, including youth-program workers and public defenders, say youth often don’t understand their rights, even when informed by police. They have trouble weighing long-term consequences as they make decisions because, as research has shown, their brains are still developing. They may be eager to please. Facing officers who are armed adults, even kids who understand the rules may be too intimidated to assert their rights. It’s hard to tell a cop “no.”
The questioning of youth was spotlighted recently in the Netflix series “When They See Us,” about the Central Park Five case, in which teenagers were wrongfully convicted of the 1989 rape of a woman in New York City.
“Young people, when confronted by law enforcement in the culture and climate we’re in today, truly feel like they’re making a choice between death and disclosure,” Sean Goode, executive director of Choose 180, told Seattle council members during an Aug. 3 presentation.
Choose 180 is a nonprofit that mentors King County youth and helps resolve their court cases. Goode also has two teens of his own, he noted. “Young people make poor decisions” and should have a knowledgeable adult with them when they’re “being asked to acquiesce their rights,” he said.
Under pressure, youth may incriminate themselves or others, sometimes inaccurately. Being questioned alone by police can cause trauma.
“This is not about particular law enforcement officers behaving well or not behaving well,” said Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, telling council members less than 10% of youth suspects actually assert their Miranda rights. “There is an inherent power dynamic between an armed adult and a young person.”
The 18-year-old from South Seattle, who’s received mentoring through the nonprofit Community Passageways, said the Seattle and King County bills could “turn around” that dynamic. The first time he was questioned, after a fight, the officer warned him he could get years behind bars.
“Some type of change” is needed to protect children from manipulation, added a 24-year-old who also grew up in South Seattle and who recalled he was first approached by police when he was 8. After run-ins with the legal system, he’s now an “ambassador” with Community Passageways, providing leadership to teens. Police are trained to question, and“as youth, we need to be trained on the system,” said the 24-year-old, also not named because he was talking about experiences as a juvenile.
Black youth are particularly vulnerable, partly because they’re more likely to be arrested and more likely to fear the police, Goode said, asking the Seattle council to “combat the disease of racism … by simply creating the space for a public defender to be present with a young person when they’re likely to make a choice that’s going to dramatically impact their future.”
Local police are referring and prosecutors are bringing fewer charges against youth. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed 68% fewer charges against youth last year than in 2013. But disparities have persisted, because of long-standing institutional racism. Black youth are 10% of the county’s youth population, yet accounted for 48% of last year’s filings.
The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office expressed concerns about the council bills last month in a joint memo with the King County Sheriff’s Office and Seattle Police Department. Some of those concerns no longer apply, said prosecutor’s office spokesperson Casey McNerthney, because the memo was written before the bill was narrowed to questioning after an arrest. An earlier version might have applied to interviews of victims and witnesses.
Separately, the memo argued the bill would add to mistrust between youth and police and thereby discourage youth from helping cops solve crimes.
“The clear message of the ordinance is that police are … are only looking to punish juveniles,” it said, referring to “scores of real life examples” where youth have helped themselves or police by quickly answering questions.
The memo also argued the bills aren’t needed because youth already receive Miranda warnings and because judges review confessions to determine authenticity. It said false confessions “appear to be exceedingly rare,” while acknowledging “we do not track the number of suspected false confessions.”
Khandelwal pushed back. In San Francisco, public defenders and prosecutors alike say a similar bill has caused youth there to mistrust the system less because they understand their rights, she noted. “The ordinance … makes our community safer and has not diminished my office’s ability to prosecute serious and violent crimes,” San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin wrote to the Seattle and King County councils last month.
Police are allowed to use what they call “ruses” to trick suspects they question, Khandelwal added. “To imagine that trust exists” today in a system that allows cops to lie to kids is “missing the reality,” she said.
Few cases actually go to trial, because youth are pressured to take plea deals, so the system isn’t set up well to identify false confessions, Khandelwal said. Regardless, the bills are meant to support youth at the outset rather than weeks or months later, after harm already has occurred, she said.
The Seattle bill is called the MiChance Dunlap-Gittens Youth Rights Ordinance in honor of MiChance Dunlap-Gittens, a 17-year-old shot to death in Des Moines by sheriff’s detectives in 2017 during a misguided sting operation. Dunlap-Gittens, who had nothing to do with the reason behind the operation, had hoped to attend law school and help youth.
“I know this is something that Chance would have wanted,” his father, Frank Gittens, said in an interview Friday. “His goal was to be a lawyer and he wanted to be someone who could help youth get better representation.”
Many people Goode has spoken to who don’t have personal experience with arrests have been shocked the bills aren’t already the law, he said, because everyone knows that children deserve adult guidance. If that impedes the justice system, then the system isn’t doing justice, Goode added.
“This is simple, family. This is easy,” he told the Seattle council that’s been wrapped up in heated debates over budget cuts and policing all summer. “This is probably one of the more simple decisions you’re going to make.”