Criminal Law

Arresting Kids

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When the police arrest a minor, or juvenile, there are differences from arresting an adult. While the juvenile may be handcuffed, fingerprinted and photographed - as adults can, teen offenders must be handled carefully.

When Can the Police Arrest a Juvenile?

In some states, the police can't arrest an adult on misdemeanor charges unless the officer personally witnessed the adult committing the crime. In a juvenile case, however, there's a lower threshold. An officer can arrest a minor as long as they have reasonable cause to believe the minor committed a crime. Reasonable cause means some evidence justifies the police having suspicion the teen committed a crime.

What Happens after an Arrest?

The laws of juvenile arrest vary from state to state, but law enforcement officers often have at least a few options for dealing with juveniles. For example, a police officer may issue a warning instead of an arrest. He may also refer him to a probation officer. He can also take the minor into custody and place him in a juvenile holding facility. In most places, adult criminals are kept separate from minors.

Many counties have unique laws for juvenile arrests. For example, the law may require authorities to notify the juvenile's parents right away or within a certain amount of time after an arrest. There may also limit the amount of time a juvenile can be held before seeing a probation officer or judge.

Prosecutors may also be limited with the amount of time to file charges against a juvenile. After that specific time period has passed, the law may require the juvenile's immediate release.

In some places and depending on the seriousness of the crime, a minor may be charged and tried as an adult after a juvenile arrest. This means the juvenile would be subject to the same process and sentencing as an adult.

At all stages in Juvenile Court, a minor has the right to have both his attorney and his parents present. Unlike adult court, no other defendants and no other attorneys may be present in court when the minor's case is called and discussed.

In some ways, juveniles have fewer rights than adult offenders. While some argue the juvenile system is too lenient, others protest the lack of procedural protections available to minors. Courts explain that they take into account the "best interests" of the minor. However, is holding someone in custody, without bail, without a preliminary hearing, without an officer even having seen the misdemeanor committed, and without the promise of a jury trial fair?

Furthermore, is the legal system broad enough to arrest unruly children? What about breaking school rules?

Riding a Dirt Bike

In Howard County, Baltimore, a 7-year old boy was arrested for illegally riding a dirt bike. He was handcuffed to a bench at police headquarters. His mother filed a lawsuit and the jury agreed that the police acted unlawfully by arresting the boy when they never saw him actually riding the bike.

The officer caught him sitting on it. However, the same jury rejected the mother's $700,000 damage lawsuit which she claimed she and her son deserved because they were left with emotional and psychiatric problems requiring professional help.

Excessive Force in Schools

In New York, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) brought a federal lawsuit after poice arrested middle and high school students for activities such as writing on desks or trying to go to the bathroom without a pass. The NYCLU claims that students were handcuffed, arrested, injured, denied medical care, illegally interrogated, intimidated and humiliated by school safety officers.

The city is reviewing the case, showing the conflict between school safety concerns and police force. The city received 1,159 complaints against officers in 2008.

Unruly Children

What about children who won't behave? Can parents call the police on them? In Ohio, a father called the police on his 6-year old who refused to go to school. The father asked that an officer come to "scare" the boy. The Ohio police explained they get these types of phone calls frequently. However, they choose not to get involved with helping parents raise their children.

While legal measures exist to help balance the interests of all people involved, there is a friction between safety and minors in our legal system that courts, parents and police continue to struggle with.

Teens are especially vulnerable to the tension because they should be old enough to know better, but are still minors and most of the time living with their parents.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I believe my son was wrongfully arrested. Can I press charges against the police department?
  • My child was recently arrested. Will there be a public record or is it sealed since they're a minor?
  • The police can't question my child without me present, correct?
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