Father Challenges Law Allowing Police to Interrogate Children Without Notifying Parents
By Jim Haley, Everett Herald (Washington)
For nearly 21/2 hours, an experienced police detective questioned the 13-year-old boy alone, finally getting him to admit to committing a sexual assault.
When the boy's father found out about what he calls a "grilling," he was incensed.
The father, the Rev. Paul Stoot, was less than two blocks away from the school where the boy was questioned. Why didn't the officer call the parent to be there, Stoot asked.
The answer is state law doesn't require it.
Police must contact parents of those they interview if they are age 11 or younger. No notification is required for anyone age 12 and older.
"I felt violated. I felt sick to my stomach," said Stoot, pastor at Greater Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in south Everett.
The boy, who had no previous police contacts, was read his constitutional rights. He could have declined to talk with the officer, or he could have requested a lawyer. He didn't do either. He could even have stood up and walked out of the room.
His admissions confirmed what an Everett detective suspected, and the boy was charged with child molestation.
Stoot is standing by his son, and believes the molestation never happened.
He contends that his son was coerced into making a confession. The boy just wanted to get out of that room and away from the police officer, Stoot said.
Stoot has already launched a campaign to get the law changed so that it would be a requirement that parents are notified when children, like his son, are questioned.
He recently called a press conference to denounce the police tactic, and has started contacting state legislators in an effort to get the law changed. He also plans to work through a network of Baptist churches around the country to push for required parental notification when police question children.
"These kids are extremely vulnerable to coercive tactics," said Michael Andrews of Everett, the attorney who will represent Stoot's son. "They just don't understand what's going on, and I don't think it's a huge impediment to law enforcement to say before the child is interrogated they talk with a parent."
Andrews believes that parents don't have to be notified if the child is at least 14 or perhaps 16. Stoot prefers 17 as the cutoff age.
If that happens, it would mean the police would be getting a lot fewer confessions to use as evidence in Juvenile Court cases, said John Stansell, a deputy prosecutor at Everett's Denney Juvenile Justice Center.
"I think (the police) would see it as quite an impediment to investigating juvenile cases," Stansell said.
Stansell conceded that confessions during police interviews are far more frequent among juvenile suspects than adults.
A judge's decision
Stoot recently won a victory in his son's case.
A judge suppressed any information police obtained during their interview with the boy. Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry ruled that the boy was not sophisticated enough to fully understand the constitutional rights he waived. The case, however, will go forward without the admissions, Stansell said.
Judges in juvenile and adult courts frequently rule on whether a defendant fully comprehends his or her constitutional rights before answering police questions.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Wynne, the court's presiding judge, last summer ruled that Jenson Hankins, a teen accused of killing a classmate, was unsophisticated and didn't fully comprehend his rights when he talked with police. However, Hankins later announced that he wanted to confess. Wynne allowed that part of the confession to stand at his trial.
"We do have to look at the relative maturity of the child to make sure they know what they are waiving," Wynne said. The U.S. Supreme Court said there's no special standard for children, so the same rules apply to adults and kids, he added.
Factors such as age, level of sophistication, education, mental ability and prior contact with law enforcement are used to determine if constitutional rights were knowingly waived, Wynne said.
An emerging issue
At the University of Washington Law School, Kim Ambrose said the issue of notifying parents before police question children has already been raised in other parts of the state, and could be put on the legislative agenda.
"The Legislature is talking about this issue. We hear about a lot of parents calling up and talking to legislators about this issue," said Ambrose, who supervises the school's Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic. She also is a resource attorney for the Washington Defender Association.
She has a defense bias, Ambrose said, and she believes teens under the age of 18 should have a right to have parents present when they're interviewed by police.
She also sees good arguments on the other side: that the current law makes it easier for law enforcement to solve crimes.
Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, sits on the Juvenile Justice and Family Law Committee, which would probably handle the legislation if it is proposed.
At the moment, Lovick, who also is a Washington State Patrol sergeant, isn't convinced that a change is needed.
"I see that kids can make pretty good decisions at that age. I don't have a problem keeping it at 12," Lovick said. "The judge will be able to make the ultimate decision to see if that person comprehended enough to understand the situation."
Stoot is getting some high-profile support from longtime neighbor and friend Don Hopkins, an Everett port commissioner.
Hopkins was shocked to learn that parents aren't automatically called.
"How many parents know the day their son or daughter turns 12 they can be interrogated by police?" he asks. He thinks Stoot's son was particularly vulnerable because he isn't a street-smart kid.
He doesn't know what the cutoff age should be, but "I'll tell you, 12 is not old enough to make a decision as important as that," Hopkins said.