A Maryland law that requires minors in police custody to call an attorney before an interrogation has drawn criticism from some law enforcement officers, who say the added step stalls investigations and keeps them from questioning young suspects who may have knowledge of a crime.

The state mandate, known as the Child Interrogation Protection Act, says minors in custody must consult with a lawyer, typically by phone, who can best explain their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves during police questioning. The law echoes similar measures passed by other states, such as California, Hawaii, Utah and North Carolina, to undergird children’s rights.

Advocates argue the extra step is necessary. They say the legal consult empowers youths, before they potentially waive a constitutional protection, to make an informed choice about whether answering police questions aligns with their legal interests. Researchers say most youths don’t fully understand their Miranda rights, which include the right to remain silent, and approximately 90% waive them. This can lead to coerced and false confessions made by frightened youths who just want to go home, advocates say.

Whether police are following the law has also been thrown into question, as first reported by The Baltimore Sun in September. Over a recent 11-month period, the Youth Access to Counsel hotline received 23 calls for youths arrested in Baltimore City and 26 calls for youths arrested in Baltimore County, according to state data.

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But police assert that public defenders who answer the hotline unequivocally tell kids not to cooperate. They say the law is wrongheaded and has become an impediment to solving crimes, threatens public safety and emboldens youth who know they don’t have to answer questions.

Police can bypass the law and question youths without allowing them to speak with an attorney when they believe public safety is at stake. However, few said they have exercised the exception because they say it’s ill-defined, and they’d rather not risk crossing a constitutional line.

The Baltimore Banner spoke with law enforcement leaders from the Eastern Shore to Montgomery County and a few state’s attorneys to find out why they think the law blocks them from keeping the public safe, and then with advocates and lawmakers to respond to those concerns.

Police: ‘Interrogation’ law makes their job harder

Nothing in the interrogation act prevents police officers from speaking to youths in the field. But once police take them into custody, the child must call an attorney before facing more questions from police. Police also are required to read minors their Miranda rights, just as they do for adults.

The legal consultation can happen over the phone, in person or by video conference and applies to minors regardless of the crime or whether they are being charged as a juvenile or an adult.

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Wicomico County State’s Attorney Jamie Dykes said the interrogation act, passed in 2022, has taken away an investigative tool without which “building a case, gathering evidence, becomes more difficult for the police, which in turn makes prosecution and keeping the public safe more difficult.”

Dykes said she supports a suspect’s right not to incriminate himself or herself, but in her experience with adult cases, most waive their right to remain silent and cooperate during questioning.

“And that gives us an edge, right?” she said.

Dykes said examples would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible, to provide. The reality is that we will never know that which we never had the opportunity to ask.”

Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis, who works closely with Dykes, said his deputies apprehended a youth they suspected of carrying a gun during a July shooting in Salisbury that left one person dead and six others injured. The youth’s phone call to the public defender prevented them from questioning the suspect, something that wouldn’t have happened prior to the interrogation act, Lewis said.

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In the past, he said, “we could have truly interrogated them, gotten a hell of a lot more information on the story.”

He said that when juvenile suspects call the public defender hotline, “almost always without exception, the PD [public defender] advises kids not to talk.”

In nearby Talbot County, Sheriff Joe Gamble called the law an “overreach” by legislators. Gamble said it makes no sense to him that he can arrest a 17-year-old suspected of killing someone and who could be charged as an adult, but he can’t interrogate the individual once in custody until they call the public defender hotline.

“We should have an opportunity to attempt to speak to them [youths],” he said.

In the more populous suburb of Montgomery County, Chief of Police Marcus Jones said his officers have been “frustrated” by the interrogation act. Now, the public defenders’ advice trumps the desires of insistent parents who want their child to cooperate with police, he said.

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Others called the law superfluous, saying it gives suspects more rights than what’s already provided in the U.S. Constitution, and also under Miranda vs. Arizona, the landmark 1966 Supreme Court case upon which custodial interrogation rights are based.

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president and CEO of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, said the phone call isn’t necessary because body-worn camera footage can be reviewed by a judge to check whether juvenile suspects understand their rights and whether police coerced a statement.

‘It’s easier to get kids to talk’

Towson University associate professor Jeff Kukucka doesn’t doubt the interrogation act makes law enforcement’s job harder, but he countered that so, too, do false confessions, which can derail public safety and protract investigations. The purpose of the law is to ensure that youths fully understand their rights, he said.

“It’s patently ridiculous to say that informing people of their constitutional rights is unconstitutional,” he said.

Kukucka, a psychologist who studies the causes and consequences of wrongful convictions, testified in favor of the interrogation act. He said science and society long ago determined that teens’developing brains keep them from making sound choices, which is why minors can’t buy cigarettes or vote.

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“So why is it that we put them in a police station, and we magically think that they’re mature and able to make those decisions?” he said.

James Dold, the CEO and founder of Human Rights for Kids, said the law doesn’t prevent police from proving a youth’s guilt or innocence. They have many other available investigative tools.

“I think the reason there’s so much opposition is because it’s easier to get kids to talk,” he said. Dold said police and prosecutors may need intensive training on the interrogation act to better understand what they can and can’t do.

Responding to claims that public defenders tell minors not to answer police questions, Alycia Capozello, a deputy district public defender for Baltimore City, said lawyers answering the hotline evaluate each situation individually.

“When we give a child advice, we must consider that police use tactics to deceive children in interrogations and that children often falsely confess,” Capozello wrote in an email. “False Confessions and confessions that cannot be used in court because a child was intimidated or confused are not in the best interest of the public.”

Prosecutors seek changes

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, who has publicly expressed his disdain for the law, said he’d like to see it amended.

In partnership with Aisha Braveboy, the state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, he wants to require a youth defendant’s lawyer to appear in person rather than advise them over the phone and said the state can use lawyers already stationed at courthouses.

Bates told The Banner it could benefit a youth facing legal trouble to have an attorney present to help them, along with their family, decide whether waiving the right to remain silent would serve their case.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates speaks at a press conference to give an update on two new arrests made regarding the Brooklyn Homes fatal shooting. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The sponsors of the interrogation act expressed confidence in the law and said they hope it remains unaltered, ahead of a legislative session where Maryland lawmakers plan to look at juvenile justice reforms.

Sen. Jill Carter of Baltimore and Del. J. Sandy Bartlett of Anne Arundel County, both attorneys and Democrats, said they sponsored the bill because they wanted to reduce, if not eliminate, the possibility of minors falsely confessing because they didn’t understand their rights.

Bartlett called Bates’ suggestion “unacceptable,” and said there’s no reason why, in a post-pandemic world, a conversation about Miranda rights cannot be held over the phone with the Office of the Public Defender.

Law enforcement testified against the measure during legislative hearings, saying it would make their jobs more difficult, Bartlett said. But both sides worked together on the bill’s language. She didn’t hear protests again until Marylanders, along with the rest of the country, saw a sharp spike in the number of auto thefts. Both legislators said they stand behind the reform.

Bartlett said, “If allowing the child to speak with an attorney is making your job harder, then I’m sorry.”