Kids in Arkansas have a right to feel confused. The laws that apply to them are as erratic as a drunk behind the wheel. And, in the view of lawyers who defend the growing number of kids who end up in court, the laws affecting them are about as dangerous.
In the past half dozen years, Arkansas's legislature has upended traditional notions of how kids are to be treated by police. And the state's courts have approved of the changes. As a result, parents are frequently astonished when they learn how wildly inconsistent the laws affecting kids have become. Most assume that they would be notified if their son or daughter were picked up by police at school, handcuffed, and taken in for questioning about a serious crime. But no law requires that, and increasingly, young people are being interrogated by police, often for several hours, without a parent or guardian present.
Parents generally assume that if, under those conditions, a 15-year-old waived his or her right to a lawyer, the waiver would not be binding, any more than if the minor had signed a loan for a new car. But that assumption is wrong.
So is the belief that if parents learned of their child's arrest, went to the police station and demanded to be with him or her during questioning, that request would have to be honored. But the law requires no such thing. In fact, a teenager, alone in a room with police, may be signing away his most important constitutional rights while his parents are outside demanding to be allowed to be with him. For a state whose laws have differentiated between children and adults on matters from schooling to curfews, it is a stunning turn of events.
For decades, lawmakers have recognized that young people are not as mature as adults. Kids have been seen as needing — and deserving — certain special protections. They cannot be worked as hard or as long as persons who are older. They cannot enter into contracts. They cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes. They are barred from certain movies. They cannot have their ears pierced without a parent present.
Yet, if they get into trouble — trouble so serious that it could send them to prison for the rest of their lives, or even to execution — the protections disappear. There was a time when juveniles who were being questioned about serious crimes were viewed as deserving of special protections. They were not viewed as being on equal footing with adults, given the complexity of the law, its potential impact on their lives, and the adversarial nature of the system. But those days are over.
While teenagers are still protected on countless less consequential matters, those who face questioning about serious crimes are now presumed to be as competent as adults. And, as with adults, they are presumed to understand their legal rights and to waive them if they choose.
In recent opinions, the Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled that, when it comes to making what could amount to life-or-death decisions, kids are as mature as adults: They may make critical and binding legal decisions while in the custody of police, and they may do so without the benefit of having a parent or guardian present.
The Conner case
Shortly after the murder of a West Memphis man in 1996, a witness identified Corey Jermo Conner as one of the assailants. That evening, Conner voluntarily appeared at the police station, where he was arrested and charged as an adult with capital murder. It was the day before Conner's 17th birthday.
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