Six Years in Prison at 15 - for a Phone Call (In Re Gault*)
Updated: May 26
By Jaime Culotta & Larry Chamberlin, 14 May 2020
There are three things that every parent teaches their children: (1) look both ways before crossing the street, (2) Don’t talk to strangers, and (3) Call 911 in an emergency. What happens when the people we’ve taught our children to admire, respect, and ultimately trust take advantage of their situation? In the State of Texas, children as young as 10 years old can be arrested by police and charged with a crime: 10 years old, a 4th grader. Have we prepared our children for interactions with the police outside of an emergency? Unfortunately, the answer is most often no.
There is a scene in the book Little Men in which a teacher comes into a classroom of young children and announces that the thief who stole some jam still has it on his face. One young man was totally guiltless but touched his face in fear. The Teacher seized on his self-admission and he was punished though innocent.
The question then becomes, how do we protect our children from the pressures of police and ultimately their rights as citizens of the United States? We must teach our children a fourth item, to be taken as seriously as not talking to strangers and calling 911 if they are hurt. We must teach our child about their Miranda Rights and how to behave when questioned by police. While this is often a topic that many parents will feel their children are too young to understand, sadly that belief is not shared by the Texas Legislature or Law Enforcement Officials.
Miranda Rights were established by the landmark Supreme Court Case Miranda v. Arizona (384 U.S. 436 (1966)). Established by a 5-4 vote, the decision read in part “Without proper safeguards the process of in-custody interrogation of persons suspected or accused of a crime contains inherently compelling pressures which work to undermine the individual’s will to resist and to compel him to speak where he would otherwise do so freely. Therefore, a defendant must be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, and that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any question if he so desires.”
The procedures established by the Miranda opinion would be extended to Juvenile Defendants following a unanimous decision in the Supreme Court case In re Gault (387 U.S. 1 (1967)). Young Gault had been accused of making an obscene phone call to his adult neighbor. With his parents being excluded from interrogations and with no record made of the proceedings the Juvenile Court sentenced the fifteen-year-old to prison until he turned 21. There was no appeal allowed from this sentence and a Habeas action was taken through the system up to the high court. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision read in part “The procedural rules which have been fashioned from the generality of due process are our best instruments for the distillation and evaluation of essential facts from the conflicting … data that life and our adversary methods present.” The Court further noted that had the defendant been 18 at the time of his arrest “he would have been afforded the procedural safeguards available to adults.” As an adult his maximum punishment would have been a fifty dollar fine and two months in prison. After considering the juvenile court system, the Supreme Court determined that “juveniles facing adjudication of delinquency and incarceration are entitled to certain procedural safeguards under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
While the intention of the Supreme Court was to protect the rights of juveniles and ensure due process, the enactment of such procedures is far from perfect. Children as young as 10 years old have the ability to waive their Miranda Rights without a parent present. This means that anything they say can be used against them to justify their arrest and/or charge them with a crime.
Children undoubtedly see police and school officials as authority figures. In most households’ children are taught not to question adults, not to talk back, and not to ask questions. In most situations this is a way for parents to teach their children to respect adults and their authority, however this can be problematic when the children are faced with an accusation. School officials are not required to contact parents prior to speaking with children regarding an alleged crime on school property. Yet what your children say can be used against them later on. Under the current policy of Zero Tolerance, school officials will call the police for minor transgressions and can testify in Court as to what the children told them.
Children generally see police and school officials as positive authority figures, ones they do not want to upset or lie to. Unfortunately, younger children are also more susceptible to being misled and are often subject to confusion. This makes children unfairly susceptible to police interrogation tactics. Children are unlikely to understand that they are not required to answer police questions without a parent being present, nor do they understand that the police are allowed to lie to them. Children are more likely to succumb to police pressures than adults, as they have a desire to please the positive authority figures in their lives and to accept as fact the statements made to them during interrogation.
So how do we protect our children? The first line of defense is education. We must teach our children how to respond to police or school officials in a non-emergency situation, specifically if they are being accused of or questioned regarding a crime. We should instruct our children on how to identify these situations, how to remain calm, and most importantly to remain silent until their parents arrive. This is a daunting task, but a necessary one.
Visit our “Legal Resources” Page to download a kid-friendly version of the Miranda Rights.