Written by Claudia Gilburd, Founder of Teen Law School, Inc.
© 2011 Teen Law School, Inc.

The next time you read the Constitution of the United States and its Bill of Rights take a close look for the way in which they discriminate against children or citizens below the age of majority.  You’ll have to look very hard, because in fact, there is no distinction between child and adult in those great documents.  The Constitution and Bill of Rights accord rights to everyone, regardless of age, race, religion, national origin or gender.  Yet, young people in our country do not enjoy all the same legal rights that older people do, and restrictions on their rights can vary from state to state, and even town to town. 

The courts have routinely upheld the right of a state, town or school to place restrictions on the Constitutional rights of youth.  Schools act in loco parentis during school hours and can limit First Amendment rights with dress codes, Fourth Amendment rights with locker searches and so on.  Cities and towns can limit First Amendment rights to assembly with curfews that restrict the movement of young people during certain hours.  States can enact legislation that criminalizes underage drinking, or sexual contact between people under the age of majority, and they can, as they see fit, place whatever age limit they choose on the definition of a youth – 37 states including Arizona place the age of adult criminal responsibility at 18, 11 states place it at 17 and two states, New York and North Carolina deem any crime committed by a 16 year old or older to have been committed by an adult.  Nowhere in the country can minors be accorded the right to bail (they must be released from custody into the care of a parent or guardian) or to a trial by jury of their peers. (Just think about a jury box filled with 14 year olds and you’ll understand why!)  But minors everywhere are afforded the Fifth Amendment right to due process and representation by an attorney.  These are important rights which parents should always remember should their youngsters find themselves in conflict with school authorities or law enforcement.  Even if your child is suspended from school or threatened with expulsion, you and your child are entitled to a hearing and you may have an attorney present.

Perhaps the most important right for young people to understand and enjoy is also included in the Fifth Amendment  – the right to remain silent or to avoid self incrimination. As former young people ourselves, we can remember the fear and adrenaline rush that comes with being confronted by authority.  In tense situations, we can all do or say things without thinking of their consequences.  When kids are confronted by authorities, at school or on the streets, they can all too often talk themselves into a great deal of trouble.  Confessions and false confessions, coerced or made under duress, can cause untold havoc for children and their families.  It is always best to admit nothing, remain polite and respectful to the questioning authority and then seek the counsel of an attorney who can advise the best course of action to protect the rights and liberty of the accused. 

When young people don’t know their rights, they don’t have any. That’s why in Teen Law School workshops, we teach teens what they need to know to protect their rights in the most basic ways.  We teach teens what they need to know about the Arizona law s that govern the activities of typical teenage life.  And we help teens understand and develop effective, personalized peer pressure strategies so they can stand up for themselves in the face of negative influences that surround them every day.  Learning the responsibilities of citizenship help young people develop responsible citizenship habits, and avoid situations that might cause their rights to be limited in the most punishing way, by and arrest, conviction or incarceration.  Protecting futures begins with teaching rights and responsibilities.

Your Family and the Law is written by Claudia Gilburd, Founder of Teen Law School, Inc. for the clients and friends of Davis Milles Law Firm.  For more information about Teen Law School and its workshops for teens  and parents, please visit www.teenlawschool.com.   Claudia is not an attorney, but works closely with attorneys in her organization. Davis Miles attorneys are always ready to help your family navigate the legal issues you might face and defend your rights and best interests through them all.