As the New York legislative session opens this month, youth justice advocates and progressive Democratic lawmakers are rallying around a bill that would protect teenage crime suspects from being bullied by police into falsely confessing or incriminating themselves.
Known by the hashtag #Right2RemainSilent, legislation authored by state Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D) was heard in the Senate’s Committee on Children and Families Tuesday, with a majority in favor of the bill. It is now before the Codes Committee.
“When you are questioning children, they may not understand the gravity of what they are doing, what they may have done, or what they have been reported to have done,” Bailey said during the meeting. “It’s really important to make sure that they are protected, and they have the proper safeguards.”
The bill would require minors ages 17 and younger to receive counsel from an attorney via phone, video, or in person before they are interrogated by police. Under the proposed legislation, a parent or legal guardian would be contacted “immediately” after an arrest, and police interrogations while in custody would include more steps than current practice.
If signed into law, the courts would enforce Bailey’s bill. Judges would suppress the use of teenagers’ potentially incriminating statements given to police under circumstances including: The teen did not first consult with an attorney before an interrogation; the minor and their parents or guardians, if they were present, were not notified of their Miranda rights; or Miranda rights were not knowingly and voluntarily waived.
Last month, around 100 state officials, public defenders and city residents gathered in front of the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building in Harlem to rally in support of the bill.
“The Youth Interrogation Bill addresses racial inequities throughout our communities and justice system while ensuring that all youth have the benefit of an attorney present to protect their right to remain silent,” Angel Gray, a manager at the White Plains-based Westchester Children’s Association, said at the Dec. 15 rally.
If signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), the change would be effective as of April 1, 2024, and would most benefit “Black and Latinx youth who are too often the targets of police interrogation,” according to the local Legal Aid Society.
Multiple organizations that serve youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems also support the reform, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, Youth Represent and the Center for Community Alternatives.
Juvenile justice experts anticipate pushback from law enforcement representatives, who may not want to give up the right to use confessions in court. Prosecuting attorneys in Erie and Monroe counties and the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York did not provide comments on the legislation.
The bill made some progress in the state Legislature’s last session, but not without opposition along the way. An emailed statement sent to The Imprint detailed opposing views when the legislation appeared before the Codes Committee last April. Republican state Senators Patrick Gallivan and Anthony Palumbo argued there is no need to alter existing law. They said minors are already ensured rights when they are in police custody and being interrogated, such as the right to remain silent.
“The custodial interrogation bill as proposed is overly burdensome for law enforcement agencies, not necessary, and does not provide law enforcement agencies the necessary funding to implement these changes,” Palumbo said. “It would also prohibit the introduction into evidence of even spontaneous statements that an individual may make prior to meeting with counsel.”
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Current state law requires that parents or guardians be notified immediately when a child has been arrested. But in practice, police rarely do so until after the child has been brought to the precinct, according to public defenders.
If the parents don’t show up, police are allowed to interrogate people under 18 without their presence, and officers don’t have to explain to the child and the child’s parent or guardian the reason for questioning, according to The Legal Aid Society and the youth development organization, Bronx Connect.
The proposed new law would amend current law regarding parents, making certain they are notified before children are taken into custody to a police station or any other locations.
Backers of the legislation say a parent being present is not enough protection during an interrogation, and that legal counsel is also needed.
As a recent example, the Legal Aid Society pointed to a 2020 interrogation of a Manhattan teen, a case that reveals how easily a young person can sign away their rights — even with a parent nearby.
In a video obtained by The City, a 17-year-old being interrogated at the police station with his mother present told a detective that he wished to remain silent. The officer encouraged the mother to ask her son about the alleged crime, and his answer to her was later used against him — an end-run around his right to invoke Miranda.
“I didn’t understand what the significance of waiving your rights would be.”Exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic
Most states have not required children have access to legal counsel before a police interrogation, according to a September 2022 report by the criminal justice research group Fair Trials. But California, Maryland, and Washington have enacted some version of legislation that would provide early access to counsel for youth. Fifteen other states, including New York, have proposed laws — but as of last year had not passed such legislation.
The New York bill addresses rights guaranteed to citizens under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments — which include the right to be informed of the cause of an arrest, the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Without counsel, Fair Trials reports, children “navigate the system alone, exposed to isolation and the possibility of ill-treatment, coercion, and possibly abuse.” The National Juvenile Law Center further describes children as “uniquely vulnerable to coercive interrogation tactics.”
That makes legal protections for teens being interrogated all the more necessary — for the sake of justice and to avoid wrongful convictions, the authors of the Fair Trials report stated: “Teenagers prioritize short-term benefits over long-term consequences and are especially prone to comply with the requests of authority figures like police.”
Jeffrey Deskovic was 16 years old when he was interrogated multiple times in 1989 by police officers in Westchester County, and ultimately charged with the murder and rape of a classmate. By the end of an hours-long interrogation, police later testified he was “crying uncontrollably” in what they described as “a fetal position.” Deskovic’s trial and ultimate conviction was centered on the teen’s false confession.
After 16 years behind bars, in 2006, a New York court exonerated him of all wrongdoing, and he was later financially compensated in a civil lawsuit.
“There were many times when I was read my Miranda warnings when I was 16, but I didn’t understand what they meant,” Deskovic said. “I didn’t understand what the significance of waiving your rights would be.”
The most widely known and devastating of cases based on forced confessions of minors involves the Central Park Five. In 1989, five Black and Latino teenagers, ages 14 to 16 at the time, were interrogated by police for hours without a lawyer following the rape and beating of a woman who had been jogging in the park. The teens were forced into false confessions and served years in prison before another man confessed to being the sole perpetrator.
Yusef Salaam, one of the five exonerees — who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly seven years — is among the high-profile supporters of the #Right2RemainSilent legislation.
“Too often we see injustice in our midst and whether it is the Central Park Five or one of the young people who have joined us today,” Democratic Assemblymember Latoya Joyner said at the Dec. 15 rally. “The pain is great, and damage is done as teenagers are convicted of felonies they have never committed.”