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‘System Can No Longer Be Built Upon the Exploitation of Youth’: Advocates Launch Campaign to Increase Protections for Teens During Police Interrogations

A coalition of children’s rights advocates in New York is pushing to get a state law passed that would mandate an attorney is consulted before law enforcement can interrogate any suspects under the age of 18.

Proponents say the measure would add safeguards for juveniles, who are more susceptible than adults to coercive police tactics when detained for questioning. Stakeholders from more than 60 organizations have joined forces as part of a #Right2RemainSilent campaign aimed at helping advance the proposed bill, which would also require officers to notify a child’s parents or guardian before moving them from the scene of an arrest.

“The campaign reflects a coalition of people who are all supportive of this piece of legislation,” said Martin Feinman, a director of juvenile justice for the Legal Aid Society in New York. “And the campaign is an effort to generate more support amongst people throughout New York state and amongst legislators in Albany to try and make sure this bill gets passed.”

The bill was originally introduced in 2019, but it has stalled in the state’s Legislature, languishing at the committee level for two years. Latoya Joyner, a representative from the Bronx, is sponsoring the proposed legislation in the State Assembly, while State Sen. Jamaal Bailey is its primary backer in the other house.

Juveniles in New York waive their Miranda rights at higher rates than adults, according to the Legal Aid Society. Feinman told Atlanta Black Star that decades of research shows children too often do not fully understand Miranda warnings or the impacts police interrogations can have on their lives.

“Most adolescents, when those warnings are read to them, don’t understand what that means,” he said. “Very often, they don’t have the necessary language comprehension skills, they don’t understand the concept of a right to remain silent. They don’t appreciate the long-term consequences or potential implications of waiving that right.

“But the truth is it is never ever, no matter what the police say, it is never in a youth’s best interest to cooperate with the police,” he added.

Underage suspects that police encounter in the Empire State are disproportionately Black and Latino youth. They are often from low-income neighborhoods, and their parents can’t afford to retain legal counsel for their children. Juvenile advocates argue that makes them vulnerable to false confessions and manipulative practices police use to elicit statements during questioning. The solution, they contend, is having an attorney present.

“What we’re saying essentially is that parents and guardians, while they are well intentioned, they do not provide the kind of support necessary for a juvenile under these circumstances,” Feinman said. “Because very often the parents or guardian knows no more than the youth does about the right to remain silent.”

A state law went into effect in 2018 making it a requirement for law enforcement throughout New York to videotape all interrogations for suspects accused of serious non-drug-related crimes like homicide and sexual assault. In December, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law legislation that expanded that mandate to all juvenile interrogations. New York lawmakers dubbed the new law, which goes into effect Nov. 1, the “Central Park Five bill.”

The so-called Central Park Five were a group of Black and Latino teens, aged 14 to 16, whom police aggressively questioned for hours in 1989 after Trisha Meili, a white female jogger, was raped and beaten in Central Park. Investigators questioned the five teens without granting them access to attorneys and used “predatory interrogation” to pressure them to give false confessions, according to state officials. The five teens were convicted and spent between six and 13 years in jails and prison before Matias Reyes came forward and confessed to Meili’s rape and near-fatal assault.

The city of New York has paid out $45 million in settlements to the exonerated men, now called the “Exonerated Five.” Legal advocates say the state’s laws have changed little in the 30 years since then to protect children from unlawful interrogations.

“Our criminal justice system remains open to a repeat of the same horrible events that took place decades ago and the scales of justice continue to lean toward injustice — particularly when it comes to young men of color,” Joyner said in a March 5 statement from the Legal Aid Society.

Yusef Salaam, one of the five men exonerated, spoke during the #Right2RemainSilent’s digital rally to kick off the campaign on March 4. New York is looking to follow in the footsteps of California, which passed a bill in September that barred law enforcement from questioning any juveniles until they’ve conferred with an attorney to discuss the prospect of waiving their Miranda rights. The state had previously passed a law in 2018 making that mandate for suspects under 16.

An NYPD spokesman told The City that the proposed bill would be too onerous in New York.

“This bill as written essentially supplants the judgment and reason of a juvenile’s parent or guardian and replaces it with an attorney,” Sgt. Eward Riley said. He added, “The bill creates an unreasonable standard that would be detrimental to public safety.”

Courts understand that interrogations are inherently coercive and sometimes can be deceptive. They’ve ruled that police have latitude to manipulate suspects under questioning. They can lie about the facts of the case, bluff and be less than forthcoming. If there are multiple suspects, investigators oftentimes pit them against one another. They tell the alleged that the first one to crack will likely receive favorable treatment for confessing and informing against the other suspects.

Investigators are often trained to use a psychological interrogation method known as the “Reid technique,” which was developed in the 1950s to extract information and confessions from suspects unwilling to admit guilt.

But limits to law enforcement’s authority are built into the Constitution. Federal law dictates that investigators must immediately stop questioning a suspect who invokes their Fifth Amendment right or asks to speak to an attorney. Any statements police obtain after either of those invocations should be inadmissible in court, absent a few exceptions.

Officers can’t continue interrogations until an attorney is present for those who’ve demanded legal representation. But if the suspect has simply said they are unwilling to talk without invoking their Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the law allows investigators leeway to resume questioning after they have “scrupulously honored” the suspect’s right to remain silent, legal experts say. What that usually means is that cops have to wait a period of time and must re-Mirandize the suspect before taking a second run at them.

“This legislation recognizes that our criminal justice system can no longer be built upon the exploitation of youth in pursuit of outcomes that are unjust and ultimately punish the innocent for crimes they did not commit,” Joyner said. “And it does so by making sure that young people aren’t forced to waive their Miranda rights without fully understanding just what that means.”

(YouTube/The Legal Aid Society)

An Interrogation Video
New York’s Legal Aid Society released an edited interrogation video on its YouTube channel March 3, which shows an NYPD detective questioning a teen after he declined to waive his Miranda rights. The social advocacy group said the video showcased an all-too-common example of a police violating an underage suspect’s Miranda rights during interrogation.

The video showed a 17-year-old Brooklyn teen sitting inside a small, windowless interrogation room at a New York Police Department precinct last fall. The boy’s mother sat beside him as a detective grilled him. It was not clear what the boy was arrested for.

There was no attorney present.

The officer read the teen’s Miranda rights, then asked the teen if he was willing to answer some questions.

The boy froze.

“It depends on what they are,” he said after a long pause.

“No, it’s either a yes or no,” the detective quickly responded.

The teen then told the detective he didn’t want to talk, invoking his right to remain silent.

“That should have been the end of it,” Feinman said. “And it should have been, ‘OK, well, thank you very much.’ And you either arrest the kid, book him, charge him, or release him. Whatever the next step is going to be.”

But that wasn’t the end of questioning. The officer walked out of the interrogation room. When he returned an unspecified amount of time later, he leveraged the teen’s mother against her son, urging her to begin questioning him herself.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked the woman. “Or you want to ask him what’s going on, why you’re in this predicament?”

The mother, seemingly oblivious to what was happening, wanted to find out what landed her son in a police precinct facing interrogation. The investigator seemed to use that curiosity to his advantage. After he prodded her again, the mom asked her son what happened.

As the teen explained to his mother how he was arrested, the detective feverishly began jotting down notes. Midway through, the officer resumed direct questioning, interrupting to ask the teen to clarify some of the details of his story. The video never showed the detective re-Mirandize the juvenile suspect.

Afterward, the officer casually slid a piece of paper across the table and had the teen and his mother sign the document. He told them it was just “stating the questions I read off to you.”

But they were actually signing away the teen’s Miranda rights without realizing so.

According to the child’s attorneys, the teen ultimately made a confession that could have jeopardized him criminally. His legal team fought to have his statement dismissed, and prosecutors eventually decided to drop the confession from the case. The teen still has a case pending for a weapons charge.

“The law provides an enormous amount of latitude for [officers] to engage in all kinds of conduct in order to get people to ignore their right to remain silent, and in order to get parents to cooperate with police against the child,” Feinman said. “In this case they went too far.”

Feinman emphasized that the children who often bear the brunt of aggressive interrogations are Black and Latino juveniles who aren’t savvy about their rights under the highly stressful scenario of police questioning.

“We’re talking about kids who don’t understand what the issues are, and their constitutional rights to remain silent are being rendered meaningless,” Feinman said. “And who’s that happening to, is that happening to all kids? Yeah, but really it’s mostly happening to kids of color in a variety of ways. And it’s offensive that we should allow that kind of disparate treatment.”

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