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What to do if your child is in trouble with the law?

I often get calls from parents where the first words out of their mouths are “My child is in trouble and the cops want to talk to him/her.  What should I do?”  Or, “My child just got a Summons to appear in court on a juvenile delinquency matter.  What do I do”  Parents who go through this situation often feel both a sense of wanting to protect their child as well as wanting their child to understand there are consequences to their actions if they break the law.  “Juvenile delinquency”  is the criminal process for which the State handles children under 18 who commit criminal offenses.  Generally, juvenile cases are confidential, but there are exceptions to confidentiality in certain cases.  Children under 18 are treated differently from adults when they are charged with a crime, which is often understood to be fair given the child’s lack of real understanding of their actions.  The only exception to keeping juveniles in juvenile court is when the charging authority (usually the County Attorney’s office) seeks to have the juvenile criminal matter certified as an adult criminal matter.  The adult certification process involves the prosecutor filing a “motion” (a formal request) after a delinquency Petition has been filed, seeking to have the matter treated as though the juvenile was an adult when the offense occurred.   Juveniles must be at least fourteen (14) to seventeen (17) years old in order for a motion for adult certification to be heard and the juvenile must meet certain criteria for a motion to certify as an adult to be filed.

If the County Attorney’s office files charges against your child, as a parent, you will receive a copy of the Summons and Petition laying out the allegations and the criminal charges.  This Summons will contain a court date for your child.  At least one parent must appear with the child at the hearing and any hearings to follow.   As a parent, you will likely have an opportunity to comment at hearings.  Your attorney will guide you through this process as each criminal offense is unique and potential outcomes may vary significantly.  Juveniles, like adults, have the constitutional right to a trial if they are charged with a crime.   They, however, are only allowed to have a trial to a judge, not a trial to a jury unless the child is certified as an adult.   If a child is convicted or enters a guilty plea to a criminal offense, they are adjudicated delinquent.  There are many potential consequences to being adjudicated delinquent including, but not limited to, being confined in a juvenile treatment facility, community work service, payment of a fine, restitution, probation, and offender registration.

Here is my advice to parents if you or your child is contacted by law enforcement wanting to speak to the child about an alleged criminal offense:  When you find out your child may have been involved in a criminal offense, do not panic.  We all make bad decisions when we panic and do not take the time to think through the matter.  Do not go on a mission to conduct your own investigation as to what may have happened.  Do not contact law enforcement and do not advise your child to talk to anyone from law enforcement about the allegations.  Contact an attorney and meet with them about what may be going on so you can be advised on what the criminal charges and penalties may be, what to expect with the juvenile delinquency process, potential defenses to the charges, and what happens when you and your child appear in court.

© 2014 Rinke Noonan