Updated April 8, 2016
Children under the age of 18 (juveniles) often have a very different experience with law enforcement than do adults. While a few hand-and-fast rules do govern the nature of these interactions, for the most part law enforcement enjoys significant discretion. The discussion below touches on some of the issues involved in stopping, arresting, and confining juveniles.
Stopping a Juvenile for Questioning
An officer who has a “reasonable suspicion” that criminal activity is afoot, and that a particular individual is involved, may stop and temporarily detain that person for questioning and a minimal “frisk” if there’s reason to think the detainee has weapons. The same is true when the person is a juvenile.
Arresting a Juvenile
Unlike a temporary stop, and arrest is more serious, and means that the individual is not free to leave. In order to arrest an adult, an officer must have “probable cause.” More stringent than a “reasonable suspicion,” probable cause means that the officer is more certain that the individual is involved in criminal activity. Officers need an arrest warrant unless the situation makes it impracticable or impossible to get one (such as when the criminal activity is ongoing and dangerous). These rules apply equally to juveniles, with the exception noted just below.
When the officer has a quasi-parental relationship with the juvenile, as is true for public school officials, for example) the full-blown probable cause requirement is softened a bit. Such officers need only a reasonable suspicion that the juvenile is involved in criminal activity. However, any subsequent search must be reasonable and related to securing the officer’s safety. For example, the Supreme Court has held that strip searching a teenage girl suspected of selling pills to schoolmates was not warranted, because the school officials faced no immediate threat of harm from her. (Safford Unified School District v. Redding, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2009.)
Treatment After Detention or Arrest
Once adults are arrested, most of the time the officers take them to the police station, “book” them (record personal information, take mug shots and fingerprints and remove and store personal belongings), and place them in jail. When it comes to juveniles, the officers have a wide range of choices, depending on factors such as the child’s age, severity of the incident, availability of family to take over, and so on. Here are the choices an officer might have:
- On-the-spot counseling and release. Sometimes, officers conclude that a stern talking-to is all that is called for in the circumstances. This result is most likely when the child is suspected of violating a relatively minor infraction or law, the child appears capable and amenable to discussion and reason, and releasing the child will not put him or her in danger.
- A ride home in the squad car. An officer may conclude that release is called-for, for the reasons just stated, but that releasing the child to the street (or wherever the arrest took place) would not be safe or in the child’s best interests. Simply taking the juvenile home serves another purpose: It alerts parents or guardians to the child’s brush with the law, which will hopefully spur positive discussions on following the law. This option used to be the norm in decades’ past, when it was relatively rare for children to be locked up. But starting in the 1960s, juveniles began to be treated more and more like adults (and to gradually receive some of the procedural protections that adult arrestees have).
- A trip to the stationhouse. If an officer decides that the circumstances make “catch and release” inappropriate, the officer will bring the juvenile to the police station. There, depending on the situation, the child may be detained until parents arrive (and then released), placed in the custody of the local “protective services” agency for children, or simply put into lock-up. The latter happens when the child is relatively old, the suspected offense is very serious, or when the child is belligerent and appears likely to get into trouble again quickly. Some counties have separate juvenile facilities; others place children in the same facilities as adults, though by law they should do all they can to segregate children from adults.
When juveniles have been arrested and detained in a police station, they may be searched for weapons and have their personal belongings removed and stored. They generally have a right to make a phone call. Unlike adults, minors do not have a right to bail. But like adults, they must be brought before a judge relatively quickly (known as an “arraignment” for adults, this first appearance may be called by another name for juveniles).
At a juvenile’s first court appearance, the judge will decide whether enough evidence exists to continue the case, which is not, technically, a criminal matter at this point. If the case remains in the juvenile system, the judge will decide whether it’s more likely than not that the child broke the law (this standard is milder than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” requirement for adults). If the judge decides in the affirmative, a variety of consequences are available, including counseling, special schooling, community service, meeting with probation officers, and live-in juvenile schools or camps.