Last spring, as I finished yet another school-based presentation about young people’s constitutional rights when confronted by law enforcement, I noticed a teenage boy in the audience staring at me in disbelief. A moment later, he walked up to me and said, simply, “That’s not how it works.” I started to protest and then stopped. I knew he was right.
I had watched too many videos where I had seen an armed police officer approach a scared kid in the back of a patrol car, reading them their rights like it was an Indy 500 event. I had seen the youth—usually a Black, brown, or Indigenous child—then interrogated by a police officer, an armed adult in uniform.
Thanks to the MiChance Dunlap-Gittens’ Youth Rights Ordinance, which the city of Seattle and King County passed into law in August, such a scene will rarely if ever occur again when youth are confronted by officers from the Seattle Police Department or the King County Sheriff’s Office. The ordinance—named in honor of MiChance Dunlap-Gittens, who at age 17 was shot and killed by police officers in Des Moines—requires that youth (under 18) will first consult with a lawyer before police can interrogate them or ask to search them or their belongings.
The need for such legislation stems in part from what we know about the socio-emotional and cognitive capacities of the adolescent brain. Research shows that young people—whose brains are still developing—don’t fully understand the consequences of certain actions, such as waiving their rights. Comprehension is further eroded by the stress of the situation and the inherently coercive nature of law-enforcement interrogations.
Further, as our own state Supreme Court recognized in an extraordinary letter to the legal community about the need to confront racial injustice, systemic racism in law enforcement is hardly a relic of the past.
“We continue to see racialized policing and the over-representation of [B]lack Americans in every stage of our criminal and juvenile justice systems,” the court wrote.
Statistics from King County bear this out: On average, 86% of the youth jailed each day last year in King County and 72% of those prosecuted were Black, Indigenous, or people of color. In light of such historic, widespread over-policing of communities of color and the disproportionate use of force against people of color, it is even more difficult for children of color to assert their rights when pressed by police to consent to searches or interrogations.
This new law attempts to protect vulnerable youth. It will require law enforcement to connect a youth to a public defender after the youth has been Mirandized but before the youth waives their constitutional right to remain silent or talk to an attorney. Law enforcement must also connect a youth to a public defender when asking them to allow their person, car, home, or any other property to be searched.
An exception allows officers to interrogate youth without connecting them to a public defender if they reasonably believe the information sought is necessary to protect someone’s life from an imminent threat and the questioning is limited to that purpose.
The ordinance applies only when law enforcement is asking a young person to waive constitutional rights; it does not apply to Terry stops (stop and frisk) or other interactions (e.g., welfare checks) between law enforcement and youth. Modeled after a similar law in San Francisco (the “Jeff Adachi Youth Rights” ordinance, which expanded on the 2018 California law Senate Bill 395), it is the only such ordinance in Washington state and possibly the strongest youth rights ordinance in the country.
The King County Department of Public Defense worked on the ordinance with several community-based, youth-rights organizations, including Creative Justice, Community Passageways, and CHOOSE 180. Dozens of people spoke in favor of the legislation during public testimony before the Seattle City Council and King County Council, including community members, parents, teachers, and pediatricians. In a remarkable show of support, both the county and city councils passed the legislation unanimously—the city on Aug. 17, the county on Aug. 18.
MiChance wanted to become a lawyer. He was bright and full of life before he was tragically killed in 2017 in a botched sting operation as he ran from the police. This new law honors him by upholding the rights of young people, advancing racial justice, and helping to end the exploitation of young people in our communities. Those who opposed the ordinance argued that it would erode trust between law enforcement and youth. But as several community members said during public testimony, you can’t erode what isn’t there. We believe this ordinance will do just the opposite: It will counter the fear and distrust many Black and brown youth feel toward law enforcement and, over time, lead to stronger, healthier, and more racially just communities.