Published: April 7, 2016

Students in Clinical Professor Colene Robinson’s Juvenile Justice class transformed the rights guaranteed in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments from theory into action for nearly 400 Boulder-area high school students last month. 

As part of a partnership with local schools and the nonprofit Learn Your Rights in Colorado (LYRIC), which trains volunteer attorneys to teach Colorado youth how to exercise their constitutional rights, law students visited 11 different history and civics classrooms in Longmont, Lafayette, and Boulder. 

Cayce Duncan (’16) and Seth King (’17) taught ninth graders at Boulder High School. For King, it was an opportunity to share his passion for constitutional rights surrounding police contact with students while educating youth about the subject.

“Many kids don't understand their rights at all, and it's not regularly taught in school. So to be able to get these points across to these kids was something I felt was extremely important for them,” said King, who is interested in becoming a criminal defense attorney. “These rights should be regularly taught to middle school or high school students.”

Attorneys Michael Juba (’07) and Hannah Seigel Proff founded LYRIC in 2008 after their day-to-day practice as public defenders in juvenile court revealed that most young people had no idea what their rights were during police interactions. After advising countless clients who had unnecessarily submitted to searches and made statements, Proff and Juba created LYRIC as a way to educate youth about their constitutional rights before they entered the criminal justice system, not after.

When Juba represented juveniles in court, it was clear to him that they had no idea what their constitutional rights were, let alone how to exercise those rights. “Nobody was telling them. A police officer is an adult with a gun and a badge and knows the law, and a child is inexperienced and often has no prior experience with the legal system,” Juba said. “There is a real disparity in power, and police officers are taking advantage of that.”

Upwards of 89 percent of children waive their right to remain silent and speak to police during an interrogation, Proff said. LYRIC attributes this to several factors, including a lack of understanding among youth of how to recognize and assert their rights, societal expectations that juveniles comply with the requests of adults—particularly those in a position of power, and the disparity in authority between youth and police officers that often leads to police taking advantage of youth’s lack of knowledge of their rights during an encounter.

LYRIC begins each lesson with a conversation on safety as the top priority during a police encounter. Volunteers also debunk myths about what police behavior is and is not permissible, as well as provide a forum for candid discussions about racial profiling, implicit bias, and police brutality.

“First and foremost, we tell students that they have to treat police with respect, and if they don’t receive the same respect, they have to remain respectful,” Proff said. “You can always file a complaint later, but on the street is not the time to resolve the issue.”

To carry the lessons into the real world, students receive a wallet-sized reminder of five key things to address during a police encounter:

  • Am I free to leave? (If so, go!)
  • I want to remain silent.
  • I want a lawyer.
  • I want my parent.
  • I do not consent to you searching me or my stuff.

“It was really interesting to see how much the kids’ knowledge of constitutional rights was shaped by popular culture. For example, they all knew what Miranda rights were, but they erroneously thought that if police don’t read you your rights, nothing you say can be used against you,” said Duncan, who is pursuing a career as a public defender. “The students also thought that if police don’t have a search warrant, any contraband they discover can’t be used in court. Our goal was to break down the complexities of when police need probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or nothing at all to question/search/detain people.”

LYRIC works with 25 active volunteer attorneys who teach in schools, nonprofits, and juvenile facilities across the Denver metro area, and they hope to expand their presentations to schools in Jefferson County and Fort Collins in the coming years, Proff said. In LYRIC’s early days, law students in Robinson’s Juvenile Law Clinic helped Proff research and develop the curriculum that comprises the 55-minute lessons taught by LYRIC volunteers. 

“It’s important for law students to be able to talk to laypeople about constitutional principles and break them down into simple terms,” Robinson said. “It's what many lawyers do every day—with clients, with juries, and with the public. Teaching for LYRIC was a great snapshot of what future practice will be like.”

“Most people feel like police contacts are scary events and are unaware of how to properly approach the situation. This 9th grade class now knows exactly where they stand and what constitutional rights they have during police contacts,” King said.

Pictured: Cayce Duncan ('16) teaching a lesson at Boulder High School.