By Paul Kiefer
Following the guidance of youth rights advocates, the Washington State Senate is considering legislation that would require police officers statewide to connect young people to attorneys before questioning them or asking them to consent to a search. The bill, originally introduced in the state house by Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-30, Federal Way), would prompt Washington’s Office of Public Defense to create a hotline to connect young people to legal advisors.
The Seattle City Council and King County Council passed similar legislation at the end of last summer, requiring law enforcement officers to connect young people to attorneys from the King County Public Defender’s office after reading their Miranda rights or asking them to consent to a search of their belongings. Both ordinances were named for Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, a Black teenager from Des Moines shot while running away from King County Sheriff’s deputies during a disastrous sting operation in 2017. Though deputies never read Dunlap-Gittens his Miranda rights—he ran away from the plainclothes deputies after they burst from the back of an unmarked van—the ordinances were named to honor his aspirations to work as a youth rights attorney.
“If a police officer knows that there’s going to be someone available to represent the youth, they’re not going to be able to use their position of power to bully or coerce a child into having a conversation with them or making a statement.”—Kendrick Washington, youth policy counsel for the ACLU of Washington
The bill before the state senate, HB 1140, would not only expand the same protections statewide, but require that young people speak to an attorney before answering any questions during so-called “Terry stops”—a brief detention based on an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” that someone has committed a crime. Because “Terry stops” are not arrests, the Seattle and King County ordinances don’t address the rights of young people to speak to attorneys in those contexts.
Specifically, the proposed law would require Washington’s Office of Public Defense to hire a team of six attorneys who would provide brief legal advice to young people in person, by phone or over a video call, after a stop; the attorneys would work in shifts and respond to calls from youth across the state. If a police officer stopped a young person in any circumstances that would require them to waive their Fifth Amendment rights, the law would require officers to connect the young person to an attorney—typically by providing the number for the state-managed hotline—before asking any questions or searching the young person’s belongings. The legislation makes an exception for searches done in the interest of an officer’s immediate safety, including searches for weapons.
According to Kendrick Washington, the youth policy counsel for the ACLU of Washington—which played a key role in shaping the bill—young people are typically unaware of their rights during encounters with police. The point of requiring young people to consult with attorneys before responding to police questioning, Washington said, “is not to tell [young people] what they have to do—it’s about telling them what their options are, because they usually don’t know.”
In practice, the law might look like this: An officer searching for a burglary suspect in a green sweatshirt stops a teenager wearing a green sweatshirt. Before the officer can ask the teenager any questions, they would have to call the Washington public defender’s office and put the teenager on the phone with an attorney. The attorney would explain the teenager’s options—asking whether they are being detained, answering the officer’s questions and risking self-incrimination, refusing to answer questions and walking away—allowing the teenager to make an informed decision about how to respond to the officer.
Law enforcement spokespeople voiced their opposition to portions of the bill during a hearing before the Senate Ways and Means committee on Tuesday. James McMahan, the policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, criticized the legislation for prohibiting young people from waiving their right to counsel, and he called into question the proposed budget for the program, which assumes that the Office of Public Defense would field only 4,000 phone calls from young people per year. Continue reading “State Senate Considers Expanding Program to Provide Legal Counsel to Youth Interacting with Police”