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California Bill Seeks Strengthened Miranda Rights for Minors

Miranda rights

Children and teens aged 17 and younger detained by police would have the right to consult a lawyer before being interrogated by police, under a California bill moving toward passage by the state Legislature. If the bill becomes law, California would be the first state in the nation to require such protections.

During an in-person, socially distanced hearing Wednesday, state Sen. Steven Bradford (D), wore a mask emblazoned with “Good Trouble” to honor the late civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis, as he urged approval of his bill.

Along with Illinois, California is one of only two states to require a lawyer to explain to youth 15 and younger the consequences of giving up their Miranda rights.

“Young people must know their rights, and they must not be alone when they’re being interrogated,” the Gardena senator said.

Senate Bill 203 expands and extends protections for minors before they are interrogated by police while being detained as suspects – either in the back of a squad car, cuffed after an arrest or held at the scene. Youth, like adults, currently have Miranda rights – the Constitutional right against self-incrimination, or “the right to remain silent.” But although they are given the verbal warning by police during high-stress arrests, children and teens may not fully comprehend what they are agreeing to, studies have found.

To correct for that, the proposed legislation would require that before being interrogated, youth would consult with a lawyer – in person, by phone or through a video conference.

The bill passed a key public safety committee by a vote of 5-1 in the state Assembly Wednesday but will need to pass Assembly and Senate floor votes before heading to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk in September.

SB 203 is part of a larger bill package backed by the California State Legislative Black Caucus, an effort to reform policing in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the international protest movement his death inspired.

The bill would replace current law — set to sunset in 2024 — that offers some of these protections but only through age 15.

In making the case for his bill, Bradford invoked the most infamous case of forced juvenile confessions following the 1989 rape of a New York City jogger. The Central Park Five, a group of Black and Latino teens, were falsely imprisoned after forced confessions when they were just 14, 15 and 16 years old. Their story was popularized again last year in the Emmy award-winning Netflix series “When They See Us.”

Testifying Wednesday by phone, Jerome Dixon of Oakland said he spent 21 and a half years in a California prison as a result of a 25-hour police interrogation at age 17, without any legal representation.

“No young person should make an uninformed legal decision, one that could cost 20 years of his life,” Dixon said.

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While SB 203 is supported by a lengthy roster of advocacy organizations and public defenders, the effort has met opposition from sheriffs and some district attorneys concerned that it could make certain prosecutions more difficult.

Speaking on behalf of the California District Attorneys Association and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, Geraldine Wong-Williams said the bill was “unnecessary” and would have “negative impacts on juvenile justice reform.” Specifically, the Orange County deputy district attorney warned that the bill needs further review and would hinder some juvenile sexual assault cases – making it harder to question youth who might be both perpetrators and victims.

“To tie the hands of law enforcement from proper investigations means we leave countless children at risk,” Wong-Williams testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

In 2016, former California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed an earlier version of the bill now back before the legislature. Brown’s unusually lengthy veto message revealed that the governor’s office gave it considerable thought, and saw both sides.

“This bill presents profoundly important questions involving the constitutional right not to incriminate oneself and the ability of the police to interrogate juveniles,” he wrote. Brown noted recent studies showing that “juveniles are more vulnerable than adults and easily succumb to police pressure to talk instead of remaining silent,” and others that found “a much higher percentage of false confessions in the case of juveniles.”

But he also noted that “in countless cases, police investigators solve very serious crimes through questioning and the resulting admissions or statements that follow.” He called these “competing realities” that “raise difficult and troubling issues.” But in the end, Brown decided he was unprepared to change the law until more work was done on the issue.

Several studies have shown the vulnerable state of children under police scrutiny. A North Carolina Law Review article found suspects younger than age 18 constituted 35% of all false confessions. Another study, from the American Psychological Association, found evidence that suggests that teenagers do not always have the mental capacity or maturity to understand Miranda rights or what giving up those rights represents.

Current efforts are underway in cities, counties and states to improve the quality of justice for detained youth. Along with Illinois, California is one of only two states to require a lawyer to explain to youth 15 and younger the consequences of giving up their Miranda rights. New York is discussing asweeping series of bills that would change how police interrogate youth in custody. And the King County Council in Washington state – which includes Seattle – is considering a measure similar to what SB 203 proposes.

Since last year, San Francisco has required a lawyer to explain Miranda rights for all minors before they are interrogated. District Attorney Chesa Boudin called in to the Wednesday hearing to say the new legal protections in his city and county had not undermined his office’s ability to prosecute crimes. He also noted that prosecutors rely on confessions “less and less” with the advent of security cameras, electronic data and increased forensic evidence.

[dc]“T[/dc]hose of us who value the Constitution,” Boudin said, “rather than a blind focus on securing convictions at all costs, are bound to support the type envisioned by SB 203.”

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Jeremy Loudenback
The Imprint

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.