Kids, Clocks and the Constitution

Justice

Social media has been buzzing about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year-old Texas boy who was yanked from class, questioned by police and ultimately suspended from school for building a clock that school officials mistook for a bomb.  The discussion sparked by Ahmed’s detention has primarily focused on whether he was the victim of racial profiling. Many questioning if his name and ethnicity had anything to do with his hand made “clock” being mistaken for a “bomb.”  However, with reports now surfacing that Ahmed was questioned by school officials and local police and even asked to write a statement without his parents present and without an attorney, this case raises some valid legal and philosophical questions as to the rights of minors suspected of committing a crime.

Earlier this week, Ahmed Mohamed, by all accounts a studious nine-grader at MacArthur High School in Texas was removed from school and questioned by police for bringing a home-made clock to school. Ahmed is a budding engineer who wants to attend MIT someday.  He built the clock as an experiment. Rightfully proud of his work and ingenuity, he brought it to school and showed it to his teacher because he thought she would be impressed.  That’s when things started to unravel.  A second teacher discovered the clock when it made a beeping noise during class. Despite telling the teacher it was just a clock, the teacher and school officials were concerned it might in fact be a bomb.  The local police were called and Ahmed was placed in handcuffs and taken in for questioning.

The photo of Ahmed in handcuffs has been all over social media. It’s a powerful photograph.  Not just because of the confused and scared look on Ahmed’s face, but also because he is wearing a NASA t-shirt.  A NASA t-shirt . . .   This kid really likes science.  How do you not give the benefit of the doubt to a kid wearing a NASA t-shirt?

Anyway, the fact that Ahmed was placed in hand-cuffs and questioned by police because he built a clock is troubling in its own right.  From reports, there was no evidence whatsoever that would suggest that his clock was a bomb.  Ahmed never suggested it was anything other than a clock.  But from a legal perspective, what is even more troubling is that Ahmed was reportedly questioned by police and school officials and asked to write a statement without being allowed to speak with his parents and without an attorney.

It is a bedrock principle of Constitutional law that citizens have a right to speak with an attorney before being questioned by police.  The rights of children are no less than those of adults.  Although criminal suspects can invoke or waive their right to speak with any attorney, we should all seriously consider the competency of children to do the same.

It is not clear if Ahmed asked to speak with an attorney, however it has been reported that asked to speak with his parents and that request was denied.  It is true that the Constitution does not guarantee a criminal suspect the right to have his or her parents present during questioning by police. But we are not talking about a competent adult here, we are talking about a scared child in handcuffs who wants his parents.

At this point there are not enough facts to offer a credible opinion on the technical legality of Ahmed’s detention.  But the story that is emerging is troubling, from both a philosophical and legal perspective.  The thought of school officials and police questioning a young teenager without a parent present and without a lawyer raises interesting Constitutional questions.  But it also raises moral and philosophical issues that we need to consider closely.  As a nation, we have always balanced the rights of the accused against the safety and interests of society.  Protecting the rights of an accused is a fundamental moral value we have collectively adopted as a nation.  Our criminal justice system, though far from perfect, is guided by this fundamental value.

But should our values be different when the accused is a child? Should we be more zealous when dealing with the rights and interests of children?  Should we also consider the rights and interests of the parents?  Children, by and large, lack the same sophistication and competence as adults. They are more vulnerable.  That vulnerability is highlighted in serious cases such as Ahmed’s, where there is the potential that a child could face serious criminal or even terrorism charges.

Denying a child the right to speak with his parents before subjecting him to questioning seems philosophically at odds with the moral values of our criminal justice system.  It seems philosophically at odds with our inherent interests as parents.  This issue does not seem to be a big discussion point with respect to Ahmed’s detention, but it should be.

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