Jan 18, 2024 - News

How Seattle police failed to get kids lawyers, despite new law

Illustration of a child's hand holding unbalanced scales.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Seattle police failed to comply with a new law requiring them to connect kids to lawyers about 96% of the time between early 2021 and late 2022, a recent audit found.

  • Now the police department says it's working to improve its practices.

Why it matters: Supporters of the new law say children are less likely than adults to understand their constitutional right to remain silent and more prone to make false confessions or incriminating statements under pressure.

  • That makes it critical that youths questioned by police have access to a lawyer who can explain their rights, King County Public Defender Anita Khandelwal said in a written statement to Axios.

State of play: Both a Seattle law passed in 2020 and a state law approved in 2021 require officers to connect minors to lawyers before they are interrogated as part of a criminal investigation or asked to consent to a voluntary search.

  • To comply, Seattle police and other police departments generally call a state or local hotline to reach an on-call public defense attorney.

Yes, but: The audit, released in late December by Seattle's independent Office of Inspector General, found that many Seattle officers weren't well trained on the new law and didn't understand all the situations where it applies.

By the numbers: Out of 50 incidents reviewed between January 2021 and October 2022 in which children under 18 should have been connected to a lawyer, Seattle officers called for an attorney twice, per the audit.

  • Ten times, Seattle officers asked juveniles potentially incriminating questions before giving a Miranda warning, which explains someone's right to remain silent and access an attorney.

What they're saying: City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who worked to pass the city's 2020 law, called SPD's 4% compliance rate "unacceptable and disappointing."

  • "It is long past time the Seattle Police Department have every system in place to ensure this basic requirement is followed every time," Morales said in a written statement shared with Axios.
  • "It's very sad that they wouldn't just be erring on the side of providing an attorney," said Liz Mustin, who manages the state program that provides on-call defense attorneys for kids.

The other side: SPD agreed with the audit's findings, which included eight recommendations for how the department should improve.

  • Still, SPD's chief operating officer, Brian Maxey, said that determining when the law applies in real-time situations is more complex than it may seem.
  • For one, it can be hard to predict when a conversation with a juvenile could lead to an "incriminating" response, one of the factors that causes the new law to kick in, Maxey wrote in a Dec. 20 letter to the inspector general.

What's next: By the end of March, the department said it will make most of the audit's recommended fixes, such as developing better officer training and having supervisors check reports more thoroughly to see if the law is being followed.

Plus: The department also agreed it should update the Miranda cards that officers read aloud in the field to include the number for the state hotline that provides on-call lawyers for minors, along with a reminder of when to call.

  • Right now, the cards don't include that information.
  • The department didn't provide a timeline for making that change.

What we're watching: Whether SPD follows through with its pledge to address most of the audit findings quickly.

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