Mere days after taking the bar exam in 2008, I inherited a caseload of 225 misdemeanors in my role as a Colorado State Public Defender. I quickly realized that most of my clients didn’t understand how the constitutional provisions I had just spent three years studying in law school applied to their interactions with police. Their jaws would drop when I explained that, as instructed in the Miranda advisement, they could have remained silent rather than confess. But these conversations were occurring too late. My clients had already waived their rights, spoken to the police, or consented to searches. I could work to remedy any constitutional violations in the courtroom, but their lack of understanding regarding their rights stuck with me.
As a first-generation college graduate, I am distinctly aware of the privilege my law degree affords. I didn’t blame or chastise my clients for not knowing their rights; I grew up around—and was raised by—people with similar (mis)understandings of the law. Rather, I felt frustrated by a system that benefited from keeping them uninformed. Additionally, as a cisgender, six-foot-tall, white, Jewish woman, I recognize that my privilege insolated me from the fear and anxiety many of my clients suffered when confronted by police. A broad lack of knowledge about the law combined with the power dynamics inherent in our criminal justice system made it nearly impossible for many people, especially youth, to clearly and firmly express their rights during police contacts.
Learn Your Rights in the Community (LYRIC) was borne from these experiences. My courtroom partner Michael Juba and I wanted to do something to counteract the power inequities we witnessed every day at work. We formed a grassroots organization with the mission of teaching young people how the Constitution applies to them using real-world examples.
By early 2015, LYRIC matured into a registered 501 (c)(3), and the curriculum was offered in schools and after-school programs across the Denver metro area. Today, with the help of more than 30 lawyer-volunteers, we teach young people how to advocate for themselves, how to avoid having their rights violated, and how to stay safe during interactions with law enforcement. Our curriculum seeks to break that cycle by teaching youth five rules as to how to act during a police interaction:
1. Am I free to leave? (If so, carefully walk away.)
2. I want to remain silent.
3. I do not consent to you searching me or my stuff.
4. I will not open the door unless you show me a warrant.
5. I want a lawyer.
The timing of LYRIC’s founding was sadly prescient. Just as our curriculum was gaining traction in Colorado schools, Michael Brown and Eric Garner were murdered by police. Their deaths led anti-police brutality activists to start the Black Lives Matter movement, and our students began questioning why LYRIC’s curriculum placed the onus on them to stay safe and assert their rights during police interactions. Why, when the police’s role is to protect and serve, were these kids spending so much time learning about how to stay safe during interactions with them?
As an organization we began to grapple with the ways that systemic racism and white supremacy shaped the criminal justice system and how our curriculum—designed to empower and educate youth—maintained that system. LYRIC is a response, not a solution, to the long-standing, systemic injustices and inequalities that plague the Black community as well as other communities of color. But our students had valid points. In response, we worked with young artists and activists to create a video that is played prior to each LYRIC presentation. In it, local youth talk about the power that comes when you understand and are able to express your rights—verbally or through silence. Making sure youth know their rights will not reform the criminal justice system, but it can help them survive it.
In the midst of the current global protests, LYRIC continues to wrestle with what we can do to create a world where our curriculum will become unnecessary because all people are safe during police interactions and their rights and liberties are protected. Right now, we are doing our small part by passing out new “Know Your Rights” cards to adolescent protesters on the streets of Denver and other cities across Colorado; we’ve also shared the flyers with activists and educators in other states. Starting this fall, LYRIC curriculum will be available to lawyers and law students outside of Colorado. The goal for all of these initiatives is to continue teaching youth about how to safely and effectively assert their rights for as long as we are needed.
Hannah Seigel Proff is a trial attorney who has represented hundreds of adults and juveniles in criminal and delinquency cases over the last twelve years. Hannah is the co-founder, and acting executive director for the non-profit Learn Your Rights in the Community (LYRIC), an organization that teaches young people about their constitutional rights. Hannah makes pro bono representation and community activism a priority; she feels strongly that everyone, no matter their means, should have access to quality legal representation. She represents victims of human trafficking as a volunteer attorney for the Alliance to Lead Impact in Global Human Trafficking (ALIGHT). Hannah also represents clients in expungement and deregistration cases as a pro bono attorney for the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center (CJDC). Hannah is also passionate about mentoring the next generation of lawyers. She volunteers as a mentor for the Professional Mentoring Program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Law School…Yes We Can program. Hannah is also the Legal Services Committee Co-Chair for the CWBA.