Know Your Rights
A Gault at 40 Campaign program brought to you by the National Juvenile Defender Center and the American Civil Liberties Union
Please note that states may interpret laws differently. A lawyer can tell you how this advice applies in your state. For information on obtaining a lawyer, please contact the National Juvenile Defender Center.
The police stopped me when I was driving. Can they search my car?
The legal rules that tell police when they can or cannot search your car are very complex and often depend on the specific facts of each case. Additionally, states my have different interpretations of the law or rules which govern their police searches. Generally, however, the police will often ask you for consent to search your car. You have a right to refuse consent. The police cannot use your refusal to consent as a basis to obtain a warrant or as a basis to conduct a warrantless search. If the police have a reasonable articulable (able to be explained) suspicion, they can search the areas of the car that could be reached by you or your passengers.
The police came to my school. Can they search my locker? Can the teachers or principal search my locker?
As long as the teachers or principal have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, they can search your property at school. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause, which is necessary for the police to search your property, inside or outside of school. It is also important to note that many school systems do not consider lockers to be your property at all, and so school officials may be able to search them under less strict rules.
I want to play football at school, but they want me to take random drug tests. Can the school make me do this?
Yes, the school can make you submit to random drug tests as a prerequisite of engaging in sports. If you feel that the collection of samples is done in an inappropriate manner or that the results are shared with inappropriate people, you may be able to challenge the procedures used to conduct the testing.
What do I do if the police want to talk to me?
If the police ask you for identifying information (like your name), you should answer them. If the police attempt to ask you questions about criminal activity, ask them if you are free to go. If they answer, “yes,” you can walk away without answering their questions. If the police tell you that you are not free to go, or if they physically restrain you, by, for example, putting a hand on your shoulder, they are detaining you. Aside from identifying information, you do not have to answer any questions the police ask you. You should ask to call your lawyer. You should be very clear once you ask for your lawyer, and use the words, “I want a lawyer. I will not answer any questions without my lawyer.” Then you should remain silent, even if the police keep trying to talk to you, until you have had a chance to talk to your lawyer. Your lawyer will not only help you with the police interrogation, but will also guide you through all the phases of the court process, and make sure that your rights are protected and your interests are advanced.
What do I do if I don’t have a lawyer?
Even if you do not already have a lawyer, you still have the right to talk to one. If you ask to speak with a lawyer and you do not have one, one will be provided for you.
What do I do if I can’t afford a lawyer?
If you cannot afford a lawyer, a lawyer will be appointed for you. This lawyer could be a public defender or lawyer who contracts with the court to represent people who cannot afford to hire lawyers.
Will that lawyer be as good as a lawyer who charges me money?
Although many people think that public defenders and court appointed attorneys do not work as hard as private attorneys, or that they are really working with the government instead of for the client, this is not true. Public defenders, court appointed attorneys, and private attorneys are all lawyers that have gone through legal training and passed legal exams to be able to represent you. These different types of lawyers work equally hard to protect their client’s interests and rights in the justice system. A lawyer’s skill is more directly related to their experience, dedication, and natural talent, than to the type of attorney he is.
But if I talk to my lawyer and tell her what happened, will the courts find out?
No. Your lawyer must keep the things that you tell her confidential. There is a privilege between you and your lawyer that protects your conversations. The government cannot force her or you to reveal what the two of you discuss, unless you agree.
But I’d rather just go home quickly. Won’t having a lawyer make it harder?
Some court processes do take longer when lawyers are fighting for you. Cases usually end quickly without lawyers, because your side of the story is not being told at all. Decisions that are reached without a lawyer to support you usually do not take all sides of the situation into consideration. It may take longer with a lawyer, but you are more likely to get a positive outcome. Legal proceedings in juvenile and criminal court are serious, and the consequences could follow you for the rest of your life. A lawyer will help you through the court process and treat your case like the serious matter that it is.
Won’t police, judges, prosecutors and probation officers be nicer to me and think I’m a better person if I just cooperate with them without the hassle of a lawyer?
There is no guarantee that you will be treated more leniently without an attorney. In fact, it is highly unlikely. Having a lawyer is your right, and the government cannot treat you badly because you chose to exercise your right. Without an attorney, it may be very hard to tell if you are being treated fairly. With an attorney, the other rights that you are guaranteed will be protected. Do not let anybody convince you that you don’t need a lawyer or that your outcome will be better without one.
People are telling me I should plead guilty. Should I?
This is an important question that defense attorneys are specially trained to deal with. Your lawyer will give you advice on how to plead to a charge based on the facts of your case. You have a right to a trial. But your plea takes the place of a trial. This makes sense: the purpose of the trial is for the judge or the jury to figure out whether or not you did the things the government is accusing you of doing; if you admit that you did those things to the judge in open court, there is no need for a trial. Once you plead guilty, you give up a lot of rights, including the right to remain silent, and the right to confront your accusers. Pleas are final. In most cases, it is extremely difficult to take back a plea. So, because pleading is such an important decision, if you do not want to plead guilty, nobody can force you to- not parents, police, prosecutors, judges, or even your own lawyer- and you should not feel pressured to do so.
I’ve decided to go to adjudication (trial). What are some things that my lawyer should do?
There are many things that a lawyer will do to prepare for a trial and while a trial is being conducted. Lawyers should file motions, which are ways of requesting that the court takes action in your favor. Motions should be filed before adjudication, and sometimes they will need to be filed during adjudication, as well. Based on the results of the motions and the investigation, your lawyer will put on evidence on your behalf, and challenge the evidence of the prosecutor. In order to do this, your lawyer will make arguments to the judge, as well as object to the arguments and evidence of the prosecutor.
I went to adjudication and the judge has ruled that I’m delinquent. What happens now?
Now you go to the disposition (sentencing) phase. It may feel like all the important parts of the trial are over and that you have “lost” your case. However, disposition is key to how long your case will continue in court. Your right to a lawyer extends to the disposition phase, and it is important that you take advantage of this right. Your lawyer will argue for conditions from the judge that are fair to you and take your needs and wants into account. A juvenile court judge has a wide range of sentences she can impose, so it is important that you have a lawyer to advocate for you.
The judge has just sentenced me and I don’t think it was fair. What can I do?
You may be able to take an appeal. If you went to trial, an appeal is your right. However, if you plead guilty, appealing is one of the rights that you gave up. This means that you cannot appeal your guilty plea, but if the judge sentenced you illegally, you still have the right to appeal the sentence. A lawyer can help you to understand whether or not you can or should take an appeal. Some states provide a lawyer to you for an appeal if you cannot afford one, but others do not.
If you take an appeal of your case, and it is successful, it is important to know that this does not automatically end your case. You could be re-tried. It is also likely that you will remain under the court’s supervision while appeals are pending and in the event of any retrials. Therefore, it is important that you abide by any rules or conditions the court has imposed on you while you are waiting for your appeals to finish. Also, you should be aware that anything you say about the case while you are on appeal or waiting for retrial can be used against you, so you should be sure to continue and exercise your right to remain silent about the charges against you.
Remember: YOU HAVE RIGHTS. At every stage- from interrogation, through arrest, through adjudication or plea, and up to disposition and beyond- you have certain rights that are guaranteed:
Why It's Important to Know Your Rights:
A Guide to Young People's Rights in Juvenile Delinquency Court
If you are planning a Rights Night in your area, please contact the National Juvenile Defender Center for hard copies of this booklet, Know Your Rights wristbands, and a videoclip DVD of Mario's Story.
Know the Law
Youth Advocacy Project, Boston
Massachusetts-specific information for youth