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Defense counsel, prosecutors battle over bill requiring counsel at juvenile interrogations

“All this bill does is ensure that children will have a consultation with an attorney,” says Sen. Jill P. Carter, the measure’s sponsor.. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Defense and civil rights attorneys urged lawmakers Thursday to pass legislation providing juveniles an unwaivable right to counsel before being interrogated by law enforcement, saying youngsters do not fully comprehend their right to remain silent and are susceptible to giving false confessions.

But the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association said the measure could stymie criminal investigations, as defense counsel would certainly advise their youthful clients in all instances to remain silent. The association urged the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to amend the bill to require interrogations of youngsters to be recorded to ensure they know their rights and are not being coerced.

The proposed Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act, Senate Bill 53, would also require that law enforcement officers take all reasonable steps to notify the minor’s parents or legal guardian before beginning questioning. The notice would have to include the child’s location, why the child was taken into custody for questioning and how the parent or guardian can make immediate in-person contact with the child.

Assistant Maryland Public Defender Jenny Egan hailed the proposed right to counsel legislation for its recognition that children are “not mini-adults” with a glib understanding of their constitutional rights and awareness of the “dangers and risks of custodial interrogation” by police.

“Adolescents are fundamentally different than adults,” Egan told the Senate committee. “It (the bill) is about making sure kids understand what their rights are before they give them up.”

Justin Nalley, of the ACLU of Maryland, said the bill’s unwaivable right to counsel provision is in keeping with Maryland laws setting minimum ages for the purchase of alcohol and tobacco.

“We protect children from themselves all the time,” Nalley said. “This legislation is simply an extension of that practice.”

He urged committee members to recall their own childhoods and their children as they assess the need for legislation guaranteeing counsel for youngsters and requiring effort to notify  guardians.

“Look through it through the eyes of a child, but also look through it through the eyes of a parent,” Nalley said.

Philip T. Caroom, of the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform, said the bill would “clarify what the rules should be” to ensure the rights of youngsters are protected when being interrogated by police.

Caroom, a former Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge, added that the legislation should go further and include a provision barring police from using “deliberate deception” when interrogating youngsters, saying children lack the skepticism of adults under questioning and are more likely to be tricked into giving false confessions.

But Carroll County State’s Attorney Allan Culver said the legislation’s prohibition on juveniles waiving their right to counsel and requirement that parents and guardians be notified would place “unnecessary logistical hurdles” in the way of effective and constitutionally sound law enforcement.

Culver, speaking on the behalf of the state’s attorneys’ association, said concerns about police coercion of youngsters could be alleviated by legislation requiring that the officers’ notification of the child’s rights to remain silent and to counsel, as well as any subsequent interrogation, be recorded.

But Sen. Jill P. Carter, chief sponsor of SB 53, called the legislation a “no-brainer” in protecting the constitutional rights of youngsters.

“All this bill does is ensure that children will have a consultation with an attorney,” said Carter, D-Baltimore city and a member of the Senate panel.

SB 53 has been cross-filed in the House of Delegates. Del. J. Sandy Bartlett, D-Anne Arundel, is chief sponsor of House Bill 269.