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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When the Police Question Your Child

Know your rights.

“If they had known that their son’s cooperation would be used as evidence against him,” reports Julie Hayden, “they would have hired a lawyer at the beginning and exercised their right to remain silent.”

As it was, after a family in Arvada, Colorado, cooperated fully with the police, their 11-year-old son was arrested and led out of his home in handcuffs for having drawn stick figures, one with a gun, in school earlier that day.

What should you do if the police come for your child?

Sadly, the prospect has become more likely.

Zero-tolerance laws and policies mean that an increasing number of children are arrested for minor offenses that would have formerly merited a school suspension or some other slap on the wrist. The boy in Arvada had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder; his therapist told him to draw pictures whenever he felt unwelcome emotions. Accordingly, upset at his mother for forcing him to attend school, he drew himself holding a gun pointed at other stick figures and scrawled the words “teacher must die.” Feeling calmer, he threw the drawing in the trash from where a teacher retrieved it. Some hours later the boy was in police custody. Such arrests are becoming common news stories.

There are no reliable statistics on how many children are imprisoned within a variety of institutions from juvenile state facilities to federal prisons. But some statistics provide an indication of the breadth and depth of the problem:

  • From 2001 to 2007, out of 33,000,000 10-to-17-years-olds, 2,200,000 minors on average were arrested each year.
  • Over 2,200 minors nationwide are currently serving life sentences as adults without possibility of parole.

Unkind Treatment

Children in custody are not treated kindly. On February 15 more than a thousand people crowded into a town meeting in Houston to protest police brutality. The meeting was a response to a surveillance video run by a local TV station showing 15-year-old Chad Holley fleeing the scene of a burglary until he collided with a moving police car. He landed on the ground, face down, and slid hands over his head in surrender. Several officers rushed Chad, kicking him in the neck and ribs, stomping his head with such force that persistent neurological problems resulted.

Again, the question: What should you do if the police wish to question your child?

First, do not expect authorities to respect your parental rights. The mother of the Arvada boy begged the police to allow her to accompany her son to the station when he was arrested; they refused. Your cooperation with police will probably not be reciprocated. Your child does have rights but do not expect to be informed of them.

Second: If possible, record the encounter. It is generally legal to record conversations in your own home. In any case, write down the names and badge numbers of attending officers; politely ask for the contact information for their immediate supervisor.

Where’s the Warrant?

Third: Before letting the police through the front door, ask to see a warrant or court order. Under some circumstances, the police can forcibly enter your home without such documents but those circumstances are legally few. Even if you are threatened with arrest, stand your ground; demand the warrant. Once an officer is allowed to enter, he has the advantage. In some states he can immediately conduct a weapons search to ensure his own safety. In all states he can unofficially survey your home for clues to lifestyle or possible violations of law.

Fourth: If an officer pushes in, do not resist. Doing so opens you to charges of obstructing justice or assaulting an officer. Passively refuse to cooperate and call a lawyer.

Fifth: Whatever an officer says, you are not compelled to bring your children in for an interview or to allow any questioning without a court order. Nor are you required to speak to authorities. The seemingly harmless information you provide can be used against your child. State simply and as often as necessary, “I have nothing to say.”

Sixth: Require the officers to state the nature of the complaint, including the number of the state statute or local ordinance your child is alleged to have violated. Have a copy of your state’s laws on hand, much as you might have a phone book or dictionary.

If the Arvada parents had known to follow those rules, their son probably would not be on probation with a criminal record. He would not be a criminal for being a boy.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.