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Seattle, King County to require legal counsel for youths under 18 detained by police

One of the courtrooms in the King County Children and Family Justice Center.
Paula Wissel
One of the courtrooms in the King County Children and Family Justice Center.

Recent data shows about 8 in 10 children charged in King County are people of color. The King County Council and the Seattle City Council are trying to make the criminal justice system more equitable.

“In King County 73.2 percent of children charged in 2018 were children of color. Between January and September of 2019, 86.5 percent of youth incarcerated were children of color,” said Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales.

Both councils are doing this by taking aim at the beginning of the criminal justice system — when a young person is first detained by police. This is when they are read their Miranda rights. They are told they can remain silent and they're told that what they say can be used against them in court. They’re also told they can have a lawyer.

This right to an attorney is now a mandatory requirement for people under the age of 18 in King County and Seattle. Two new ordinances passed unanimously by both councils state that attorneys must be present for people under the age of 18 who are in police custody and who’ve been given a Miranda warning.

Advocates for juvenile justice reform say the teenage brain is not fully developed enough to think through the potential consequences of talking to police without legal representation.

Anita Khandelwal, the head of the Department of Public Defense for King County, says research shows that most young people still don’t actually understand what the Miranda warning means.

“They don’t understand that they can remain silent. They don’t understand that they can ask for a lawyer. They don’t understand that they can refuse to consent to an officer’s request for a search or request for information,” Khandelwal told the Seattle City Council during a briefing.

The Miranda warning comes from a 1966 landmark Supreme Court decision Miranda v. Arizona. It ruled that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents prosecutors from using a person’s statements against them at trial unless it could be shown they’d been informed of their right to consult an attorney.

“We want young people to have the information they need to make informed decisions that would inevitably impact their lives and that this would be the first of many pieces we need to do to dismantle the racism that is embedded in our criminal legal system and stop the school to prison pipeline,” Morales said during Monday’s council meeting.

The new ordinances also require police to keep track of when youth are questioned without legal counsel, why that was allowed to happen and what the questions were. Law enforcement officials say documenting these interviews already is a practice.

The ordinances also prevent law enforcement from asking young people for permission to conduct a search of their property or of the person until they have received legal guidance.

Under both ordinances, no immediate legal council is required to be provided to minors if police believe they need to move quickly because someone’s life is in danger. Also, juveniles are still free to talk to police if they want. They can reject the advice of an attorney.

In a letter from King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg back in July, when this legislation was being debated, Satterberg said these bills can be characterized as “a solution looking for a problem.”

One of the goals of these ordinances is to prevent juveniles from giving false confessions, Satterberg said. “Having a lawyer present during questioning who wasn’t present for the crime  does nothing to prevent false confessions. Having a lawyer present will simply prevent any statements at all,” he wrote.

Satterberg also wrote that even though the number of false confessions is not traced, they appear to be exceedingly rare in King County. He said this problem “hasn’t been alleged in a filed juvenile court case in at least the past 15 years,” and that all confessions by juveniles are reviewed by judges who are well situated to scrutinize the veracity of a confession.

Both of these new laws are named after Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, a 17-year-old from Des Moines, who was fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies during a failed sting operation in 2017. Dunlap-Gittens had hoped to become a lawyer and help troubled youth.

Reporter Paula Wissel contributed to this story.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.
Rebekah Way is an on-call news host at KNKX. She began her career in public radio as a news intern at KNKX, where she's also worked as an interim producer and reporter. Rebekah holds a life-long passion for music and also works as a professional musician and educator in the Seattle area.