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Teaching even little kids how to exercise their constitutional rights

September 26, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
I stumbled across a website the other day that advises parents to give their kids a laminated card with a "Reverse Miranda" warning.

The recommended wording of the card:

"Notice to Government Agents. You are hereby informed: 1. I am exercising my right to remain silent. 2. I am exercising my right to speak to my parents now. Notify them immediately. I will not answer any questions at this time without my parents and my attorney being present."

On the back of the card go the parent or parents' names, home, work and cell phone numbers and the name and number of the family attorney or some other emergency contact.

The site advises parents to teach kids to hand this card over if they are stopped by police or a social worker or anyone else who wants to question them at school or daycare or away from their parents.

At first glance, this looks like the height of paranoia and will probably make the "government agent" more suspicious than he already is. For the most part we want kids to trust cops and social workers and feel comfortable talking with them if there is a problem.

On the other hand, I am extremely concerned about the gradual erosion of civil liberties in this country. Not every encounter with police results in a good outcome for kids who are suspected of some sort of wrongdoing or who have a family member who has been accused of doing something illegal. I don't think it hurts to give even very young kids age-appropriate instruction in what their rights actually are and how they can exercise them and what the police and social workers who might want to talk with them are actually allowed to do.

Kids have a right to know that they don't have to talk to police or to social workers if they don't want to and that they have a right to have their parents or an attorney to represent their interests with them before they are questioned.

A school official who calls the police to report a kid for something or makes it easy for the police to interrogate a child at school probably is not there to help him out legally, even if the kid trusts his teacher or principal. That last scenario was part of a Supreme Court case heard last year, in which the Court ruled that the police are required to take a suspect's age into account before issuing a Miranda warning.

The case, J.D.B. vs. North Carolina, involved a 13-year-old boy who was suspected of two home burglaries and was questioned in the school office in the presence of a police investigator, a police officer who was assigned to the school, and the school principal. The kid confessed after his principal told him "to do the right thing" and the police officer told him the case was going to court and he might be detained until trial. He continued answering questions after he was told he was free to leave. They never read the boy the Miranda warning. The question in front of the Supreme Court was whether the boy was too young to waive his rights. The Court apparently felt a 13-year-old was too young. I don't think they went far enough in the ruling. The boy should have had his parents or a lawyer in the room with him before he was questioned. The school principal was probably considered to be acting in place of his parents, but he obviously was more interested in getting a confession.

Kids need to know that the police or any other representative of the government generally needs to get a warrant before they can come into their homes, unless there is some indication of immediate danger.

The Reverse Miranda warning card might empower young kids in some situations, including the case of a kid who might be questioned at school in relation to a criminal investigation and urged to confess by a teacher or principal. Kids should also be clear on the fact that they also have the option of talking to the police or a social worker if there really is some sort of abuse going on at home or if they have been the victim of a crime.

I've seen various videos on YouTube with similar advice for adults and teenagers. One at has videos that show different scenarios: a driver is pulled over by the police and the officer asks to search his trunk in one. In another, a police officer is called to a residence because of a loud party and asks to search the home. The videos show people how they can exercise their civil rights in those situations. People in the videos remain calm, keep their hands in plain view to show police they are not a threat, they avoid volunteering information and calmly assert their rights with phrases such as: "Am I being detained or am I free to go?" and "I don't consent to any searches, sir."

I think those videos ought to be required viewing in every high school civics class in the country. After all, failure to know their rights and failure to assert them can mean the loss of those rights.


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