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Seattle council approves law requiring lawyers for minors Mirandized by cops

Mi'Chance Dunlap Givens was shot by King County Sheriff's deputies in January of 2017. (KIRO 7)

“They took his life and I’m just left to feel the pain.”

Those words were from Alexis Dunlap last year, as she spoke at a press conference announcing a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against King County over the killing of her 17-year-old son, Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens. That came about as part of a botched 2017 sting operation, that included misleading the teen and a friend and prompted a blistering report of sheriff’s office policies and tactical decisions leading up to the shooting.

On Monday, Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance named in the teen’s honor, which supporters and the teen’s parents hope will stop cops from being able to deceive juveniles in the future, and avoid such devastating outcomes.

The MiChance Dunlap-Gittens’ Youth Rights Ordinance gives protections to children and young people by requiring legal counsel to explain their Miranda rights.

It was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Lisa Herbold, but was really championed by community stakeholders, including his parents and those fighting for juvenile justice reforms, like Sean Goode of CHOOSE 180, a local youth diversion program.

“What we’ve come to know to be true is that a young person at a critical moment when being confronted by a law enforcement officer isn’t processing what the officer is telling them as it pertains to the Miranda rights, and they don’t clearly understand what they mean at all. So what we’re asking for is simply that a public defender be able to consult with a young person before they acquiesce their rights, so that they understand clearly what they’re doing when they consent to a search, or when they begin to answer questions from police,” Goode explained.

“This is especially important because police are allowed to use a ruse, if necessary, based upon their determination to get information from a young person,” he continued. “So, a police officer can say something like, ‘Well, if you just tell me what happened, you can go home,’ or ‘your friend already said what happened so I’m just looking to confirm it with you.’ Both can absolutely not be true, but [police] can say that in an effort to coerce a young person to confess to something.”

Goode said the hope would be in those scenarios that as stuff goes to trial, the judge is able to hear it and then “make a righteous judgment based upon the facts that are presented.”

“But 90% of these cases don’t actually go before a judge, and they’re reconciled in a plea agreement, which means that when information is gathered and decisions are made, based upon that inequitable gathering of information, a young person’s life is being determined, without the opportunity to fully know what their rights were in the first place,” Goode said.

He also points to the inequities in the system, including in King County, where Black and brown youth are disproportionately policed for their adolescent behavior.

“It’s far less likely in a county where practically 70% of its residents identify as white that their young people are even going to run into an instance where this becomes problematic, and much more likely that if your young person is Black or brown, or an indigenous person of color, that they’re going to need to take advantage of a public defender to be able to assure them that they do have rights in these critical moments,” Goode said.

Goode said the law could have helped save Dunlap-Gittens life.

“Mi’Chance is a young person who was taken from us that would have benefited from having legal advocates present to be able to disarm the police from using tactics that ultimately led to his untimely passing,” he said.

The Des Moines teen was about to graduate high school, and had dreams of going to law school and helping others. He was shot five times as he fled from plainclothes detectives who jumped out of a van at night without identifying themselves as cops. That was after deceiving Dunlap-Gittens and a friend into thinking they were looking to buy illicit alcohol the boys had in an effort to catch a hit-and-run suspect wanted in the death of a Seattle police officer’s son a couple of days earlier.

Neither teen had anything to do with that case. Dunlap-Gittens was only at the site of the sting – which was against KCSO policy — to help his friend carry the liquor, though both teens did have guns, reportedly out of fear they may be robbed making the liquor drop. Of the five bullets that struck him, four were in the back, including the fatal shot to the head as the teen ran up his driveway in a desperate effort to get home.

“Young people are children, and should absolutely have adults representing them when making critical decisions that can impact the rest of their lives. Connecting young people to a lawyer who can help them understand their rights means our children will be less likely to have unfair and biased contact with the criminal justice system, increasing community safety and protecting their futures,” Councilmember Morales said.

“I appreciate the work done by community and the King County Department of Public Defense on this ordinance, including a thoughtful approach that protects our young people when Miranda Rights are read, while allowing law enforcement to carry out their duties where young people are involved in welfare checks or speaking with victims of crime,” Councilmember Herbold said. “We’ve also worked to address concerns of law enforcement by ensuring that the bill specifies that failure to adhere to the law does not make evidence inadmissible in a court proceeding.”

Some of those concerns had been expressed in a letter from King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg last month, but largely spoke to an earlier version of the ordinance.

Ahead of the city council vote, Dunlap-Gittens’ parents also spoke.

“I’m a little biased in my support of this ordinance because of the loss of my son by the hands of law enforcement, and also by the desire to prevent another family from suffering,” Alexis Dunlap said.

“The pain that I feel when it absolutely could have been avoided,” she continued. “There are laws in place to protect our children. One problem with the law is knowledge of the protections or the lack of said rights or knowledge of our youth, so we need to have the ordinance adopted and promoted. It will be ineffective if the youth have rights that they are unaware of. I’m honored to have this in his name in remembrance of my son. He was a beautiful soul who always wanted to help the less fortunate, protect the weak, and defend the innocent.”

Dunlap-Gittens’ father, Frank Gittens, thanked the council and the community for their support and efforts to change the system over the past few years, and shared how proud he was of his son.

“Mi’Chance wanted to be a lawyer, to strive to be those things, to help young people, to help older people and to help all of us, and he was a gift that was given to myself and his mother. And now he can continue to be a gift that’s going to keep on giving to everyone in this city. I’m just proud to be a father, and that he is going to protect our youth, even in his death,” Gittens said.

The King County Council passed its own version of the Mi’Chance law Tuesday afternoon.

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