Study: Interrogated Teenagers Confess, Don’t Ask For Lawyers

October 15th, 2014

Whenever I address any high school students, the first, middle, and last thing I tell them, is that if they are ever arrested to demand a lawyer immediately and not talk to the police without one. I even recorded this ultra-hip YouTube video teaching this lesson. Unfortunately, not enough teenagers heed this advice.

The Times reports on a new study about teenagers who are interrogated–none ask for lawyers, many make confessions or incriminating statements:

What none did, however, was exercise his constitutional rights. It was not clear whether the youths even understood them.

Therefore none had a lawyer at his side. None left, though all were free to do so, and none remained silent. Some 37 percent made full confessions, and 31 percent made incriminating statements.

These were among the observations in a recent study of 57 videotaped interrogations of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, from 17 police departments around the country. The research, published in Law and Human Behavior, adds to accumulating evidence that teenagers are psychologically vulnerable at the gateway to the criminal justice system. Youths, some researchers say, merit special protections.

The study shows that police, as they often do, are allowed to lie, but the teens don’t know this. Whenever I tell teenagers that the police can and do lie, they are appalled. Remember when they taught us in school that we should always trust the police. Ha!

Teenagers, he added, are also less likely than adults to know that the police can lie during interrogations.

“The police often promise kids things in the present. ‘If you just tell me you did it, you can go see your mom,’ ” he continued. “And because the brain’s reward systems are hypersensitive during adolescence, that immediate reward of confessing will trump the thinking of, ‘What will happen when I come back to court in a month?’ ”

Moreover, research shows that teenagers aged 15 and younger will unwittingly comply with authority figures. They are very suggestible, so that during an interrogation, they are more likely than adults to change their answers in response to interviewers.

Also, I make sure to tell the teens that they demand a lawyer, not just their parents. Why? Their parents have no clue either.

In Dr. Cleary’s study, only 12 suspects were accompanied by parents during portions of the interviews, whose duration ranged from six minutes to five hours, with the average about 45 minutes.

But if parents are not legally savvy, their presence may not serve young suspects well.

In the videos, five parents remained largely silent. Some lectured their children and then questioned them, taking on the interrogator’s role. A few parents urged their children to come clean, inadvertently sealing their fate.

Parents have conflicting roles, Dr. Cleary said. “They want to defend their children against accusations of wrongdoing. But we also socialize children to obey the law and tell the truth.

“Some parents might have felt compelled to use the situation as a teachable moment, or they might have felt their parenting skills were being threatened.” Dr. Cleary said. “It’s not fair to put parents in that situation, particularly without a lawyer.”But how do parents balance encouraging children to respect authority against the harm that can befall them by speaking with interrogators?

Dr. Steinberg suggests that parents tell teenagers: “If you’re being questioned by police because they think you’ve done something bad, say you need to talk to your parents first.” Parents can decide whether to call a lawyer.

No. You always call a lawyer. Even if your kid is in trouble, your first duty as a parent is to make sure the child is adequately represented. Parental punishment can always come later.

The Court recently held in J.D.B. v. North Carolina that age was a relevant factor in deciding whether a person is in custody for purposes of Miranda. Children should always know that they are required to ask for a lawyer.

Watch the video!