- Hannah Seigel Proff grew up in Seward, Alaska, home to the state's only maximum-security prison
- She graduated from the University of Denver's law school and spent seven years with the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender
- While working as a public defender, Seigel Proff handled more than 30 trials
- In 2008, she cofounded LYRIC, a group that educates children about their rights in the criminal justice system
Colorado Politics: In your work defending children, were there any systemic problems that you identified which you thought warranted intervention?
Hannah Seigel Proff: One of the most obvious was young people not understanding their rights or understanding how the Constitution interacted with them and their cases.
Learn Your Rights in the Community is an organization I started with Michael Juba, who is another attorney in Denver. Michael and I were young public defenders. We had just transitioned into the juvenile unit in the state public defender's office. We were reflecting, after work hours, about how many of our clients seemed shocked to hear that they really could have remained silent when they were advised of their Miranda rights by police.
They were read this advisement, but I think so many young people think they have to answer the questions even though they are told they don't. I think so often we teach our children to fess up to what they've done and the consequences will be less serious. So, then it's hard for young people to break that pattern when they're in a police interrogation.
Also, children, because of their developing prefrontal cortexes, have a harder time understanding long-term decision making. They think, "I'll tell this officer what I did so I can end this interview," not thinking how it's not in their long-term interest to confess to a crime or do this without an attorney.
That's when LYRIC was born. The idea that we needed to teach young people about these rights. For about the first five years, we were very grassroots, the two of us showing up anywhere and everywhere, from church basements to library meeting halls. Eventually we built a curriculum and have a board and all those things fell into place.
CP: Tell me what a presentation looks like.
HSP: We always start by talking about youth safety and the fact that the No. 1 priority when interacting with the police is to assert the rights we're about to teach you in a safe and respectful way. We then talk about the Fourth Amendment, and the right against unreasonable searches and seizures. We use real-world hypotheticals, talking about police interactions on the streets, police interactions in cars, police contacts in schools.
We teach young people to ask, "Am I free to leave?" And if they are allowed to leave, then we tell them they should leave and respectfully walk away from the police interaction. If they're not free to leave, then they have to stay. We then talk about warrants in houses or for items like cell phones. When you and your stuff can be searched.
Then we move into the Fifth Amendment, your right to remain silent. Deconstruct the Miranda rights: You say I can get a lawyer, what does that look like? When are they gonna show up? Who pays for it? Really we just go through these core tenets in a way that gets them asking questions.
Finally, we end the presentation talking about the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney. Talking about attorney-client privilege — kids and most people think that's pretty cool that you can tell your criminal defense lawyer or juvenile defense lawyer anything.
CP: With the right to remain silent, being aware if there's no warrant, it sounds like a key message is that kids have the right to not cooperate with police. Is that a fair characterization?
HSP: We have had police officers watch our presentation and what I hear from them is they appreciate when people are clear and concise with their rights. I don't think it's about cooperation. Of course, they're going to cooperate.
If a police officer says you're not free to leave, you have to stay or you put yourself or others in danger. If you run when they said you can't leave, that's a problem for you, the officer and the community. If they have a warrant for your arrest, yes, you have to cooperate.
But when you are asked a question like, "Do you want to talk to us? Do you want to consent to the search of your backpack?" The officers like it when people are concise with, "No, I do not consent. No, I do not want to talk."
The average officer, their job is to ask. But if someone doesn't want to talk, they understand. For the most part, when my clients say they don't want to talk, the officers respect that.
When they're given this choice, so many children think it might be a choice in name only, a question you can't say no to. A lot of adults don't know this stuff, either. We all hear the Miranda warnings on television shows, but I think in the heat of the moment when you're in an interrogation room and there's a nervous energy, you're not thinking critically about the law.
So, I don't agree I'm telling them not to cooperate. Before they're in that anxiety state of being under arrest and interrogated, we're explaining how these constitutional principles apply to these situations.
CP: Are you aware of anyone who attended a LYRIC presentation putting that knowledge into practice with police? And what the outcome was?
HSP: We don't collect data on students nor do we track the students who we teach. Anecdotally, I have had lawyers come up to me and tell me, "My kid asserted his rights because he showed a LYRIC card." We hand every student that we teach a LYRIC card, English on one side and Spanish on the other. We often leave them with teachers.
CP: Do the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendments grant any fewer rights to children than to adults? Or any greater protections?
HSP: Under the Fifth Amendment in Colorado, children have a greater protection, which is parental consent. Colorado has a statute where an adult, in a situation involving a juvenile, also needs to be advised of their Miranda rights. If I have a child and they were being Mirandized, the police would also need to advise me.
If we both agreed he or she should talk, then they could talk. If I said no or the child said no, they can't talk.
In schools, children have fewer rights under the Fourth Amendment. There's the issue of truancy — children have fewer protections to have freedom of movement. There are several criminal law rights that children don't have, for example, the right to a jury trial in a lot of cases.
But for the most part, their Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendment rights mirror those of adults.
CP: Do you ever think it's unfortunate that people should be learning about what their rights are at such a young age, when they may actually be in contact with the legal system as high schoolers or middle schoolers? Or do you think that no matter what state they live in, no matter what country they live in, it's always beneficial for children to know their rights under their system of laws?
HSP: There are some kids who are too young for this stuff. Before we teach at the junior high level, we will have a candid conversation with a teacher to say not every junior high kid is ready for this. There are certain junior highs — if kids live in an area with a lot of police presence — or sometimes there's a lot of kids who want to be lawyers and are interested in this from an academic perspective.
But most of the time, we're teaching to the high school level. I don't think it's unfortunate because in high school, we're learning about the Constitution in civics class. Really what we're doing is bringing the law to life for young people. Hopefully for most of these children, the only interaction they will have with police is a speeding ticket. Knowledgeable citizens understand how the Constitution affects them day-to-day and how rights change.
CP: Is there a most common scenario you've encountered where, if kids were only aware of their rights, they would avoid getting wrapped up needlessly in the criminal justice system?
HSP: I think a speeding ticket is a way that a lot of us have police interaction. One of the ways I see that children and families often regret how they handled justice involvement is by making a statement. I tell people to think of how anxious they get even when it is that speeding ticket. Then imagine if you're 14, your mom's in the room mad, and how anxious you are and you don't know what to say or how to act.
So many children I've represented have made statements in the heat of the moment and they later said, "That's not even what happened. I don't know why I said it that way. I didn't explain it well." They just wish they hadn't spoken about what happened.
I use the example: I drove my Prius here today. It's in the parking lot. If, when I went to leave this school, a police officer pulled me over and asked whether he could search my trunk, I would say no. Even though I know the only thing in the hatchback of my Prius is a yoga mat and some stuff I need to return at Target. It's just the idea that I understand my civil liberties and can assert my rights.
If he had a warrant? Of course. If he had exigent circumstances? Sure. That's not me being a bad person or I'm not doing something nefarious. I know my rights.
CP: There is a line of political argument that says policies that are not tough enough on criminality lead to more criminality. I know we are talking about constitutional rights, which are basic to everybody. But what would you say to people who are in favor of getting out of the way of police so they can arrest wrongdoers and deter future crime?
HSP: Even when people, for the most part, understand their rights, police officers still manage to solve and fight crime and make arrests. It is not typical that some statement in a case makes or breaks it. The police have all this investigative power and the evidence can come from many different sources.
I don't think police or anyone else should be afraid of people understanding their rights and liberties and asserting those. LYRIC's whole purpose is to make sure young people are knowledgeable about their rights and I don't think that changes the ability to prosecute people.
CP: How did the pandemic affect LYRIC?
HSP: It was hard to get our volunteers to transition online. One of the reasons people love to volunteer is that they're in person, with kids, around people — LYRIC is really interactive.
I will say that with the racial reckoning of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, there were a lot of schools and programs reaching out because a lot of young people were protesting and thinking critically. We made a video about knowing your rights when protesting.
We made it work, but it was difficult. Like so many organizations, we had to cancel our in-person fundraising event, which is where we earn the majority of our money. You don't pull the crowds like you do in person.
CP: Now that that phase of the pandemic is over, what are the future plans for LYRIC?
HSP: We are working on another module on wrongful convictions alongside the Korey Wise Innocence Project at the University of Colorado Law School. We continue to want to reach young people outside of the metro area. The hard thing is getting volunteers. There are fewer lawyers in rural areas. They're doing such good work, but there's a limited group. I would love to see us in different parts of rural Colorado.