Anyone who has ever watched a television show or movie in which the police apprehend a suspect is familiar with what’s known as the Miranda warnings: “you have the right to remain silent; anything you say may be used against you; you have the right to an attorney; if you cannot afford one, one may be appointed for you.”
One of the biggest and most regrettable mistakes young people make when detained by a police officer is to not ask for a lawyer. Whether you believe you have done anything illegal or not, if the police are detaining you, it is likely because they have some reason to believe that you have violated the law, or that you know something about an incident they are investigating. In either one of those scenarios, you are better off with the assistance of an attorney. Legal counsel is also more protective of your rights in the event there is an offer of a more lenient consequence, or in any plea negotiations.
Although states differ in how they interpret the 6th Amendment constitutional right to counsel (varying in such things as whether they are required to provide counsel free of charge, or when the right to counsel actually is triggered) individuals best protect themselves if they make it their practice to ask for a lawyer before answering any questions (other than basic identifying information such as name or address). Of course to avoid unnecessary conflict when invoking your right to counsel, it is best to do so calmly and politely (see Justice Corner blog post “’Pearls of wisdom’ for young Black men and others who encounter the police”).
I have seen the 6th Amendment right to counsel most trampled on in juvenile courts with our most vulnerable population – our kids. Routinely youth or their parents are allowed to “waive” their right to counsel either by a judge from the bench, or as part of the intake process. Often people don’t even know what is happening as court procedures typically move quickly, and with little explanation.
This scenario recently was illustrated in the book and documentary “Kids for Cash” which shared the juvenile court scandal in Luzerne County Pennsylvania. One of the most egregious violations that prompted the investigation was the routine practice of allowing parents to sign waivers of counsel with little explanation of what was at stake. In Luzerne County, it was customary to inform parents and youth that things would “go easier” if they signed the waiver, but then kids were locked up even though it was clear that neither they nor their parents understood that their freedom was at stake.
In the end, it is a better option to have an attorney who is assigned to represent your best interests in criminal or juvenile court matters. After all, the United States Constitution guarantees this right, so why not use it?
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. Seek an attorney with knowledge of the laws in your state if you have the need for specific information.
Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com
Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at firstname.lastname@example.org