Minors under 18 years are typically tried in the California juvenile courts if they break the law. However, the commission of some crimes can lead to a child being tried as an adult. As a parent or a guardian, the thought of your child serving a jail term is haunting. Worse still, if a minor is charged as an adult, they are subject to severe penalties that an adult offender would receive. You want to ensure that you obtain the best legal representation to ascertain that your child will not be charged as an adult and, if they are, to defend them from stringent punishments.
Suppose your child or a child in your custody is apprehended, charged, or is facing a lawsuit in an adult court system, and you are in search of quality legal representation. In that case, The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm is at your service. We are a top-tier criminal defense law firm based in Los Angeles, California. Contact us for a free case review and consultation.
Furthermore, our attorneys are diligent and strategic in fighting for the best interests of our clients. With us, by your side, you can be sure your child will be adequately represented throughout all court procedures. We invite you to contact us for more information about the services we provide.
Overview of The Juvenile Court System in California
Juvenile courts hold the legal mandate to oversee criminal cases against children who are below 18 years. This jurisdiction is warranted under the California Welfare & Institutions Code Section. It includes minors who committed a crime at an age below 18 years, but the offense is discovered once they are already of the legal age.
A child below 16 years should not be charged in an adult court. However, suppose a minor aged below 16 years or above is accused of committing crimes under Section 707(b). In that case, they can undergo a transfer trial, which allows the judge to establish whether the circumstances will enable the child to be charged in an adult court.
The primary distinguishing factor of an adult conviction and a juvenile conviction is the conviction's purpose. In a juvenile court, the goal is to rehabilitate and correct the child's behavior while in an adult setting, the goal is to punish the offender.
Juvenile Justice Initiative - It was initiated when California citizens passed Proposition 21, to allow minors who commit certain crimes to legally face prosecution in an adult court and face the set-out penalties per the offense. At the court's discretion, a juvenile who is at least 14 years can be tried as an adult if they commit certain crimes. Furthermore, the law outlines the specific offenses that will be automatically charged within an adult court if committed by a minor.
Crimes that Lead to An Adult Trial for Minors
Under the Welfare & Institutions Code 707(b), the offenses that can lead to a minor being prosecuted in an adult court include
- Homicide crimes such as murder or attempted murder and voluntary manslaughter
- An offense against a person above 60 years or a disabled person as stipulated under Penal Code 1203.09
- A Health and Safety Code 11055(e) violation involving manufacture, distribution, or compounding of a controlled substance, of more than half an ounce
- Kidnapping with bodily harm or for purposes of robbery, sexual assault, carjacking, or ransom
- Assault and battery with a deadly weapon
- Aggravated mayhem
- Rape or sodomy with a force that results in physical harm
- Violent felonies that are related to a criminal gang as stipulated under Penal Code 186.22(b)
- If the minor personally uses a firearm in committing a felony, the crime is aggravated and can be charged in an adult court
- And escape from a juvenile facility by use of violence that inflicts injury on the facility's employees
The crimes outlined in the Welfare and Institutions Code 707 (b) are 30 in number. Suppose your child is arrested or is already facing charges for an offense. In that case, you want to consult a criminal defense attorney for a case review to determine whether the crime qualifies as those outlined in this code.
Furthermore, the prosecutor can file a lawsuit directly in an adult court system if a minor allegedly commits specific crimes. These crimes include murder cases where the minor is alleged to personally execute the crime and certain sexual offenses that involve violence, bodily harm, or other aggravating factors.
The Juvenile Court Case Procedures
A majority of charges against a minor will begin in a juvenile court and, out of necessity, can be forwarded to an adult court. There are four types of hearings that are carried out for a minor offender in a California juvenile delinquency court process, depending on the offense's nature. The hearings include a detention hearing, fitness hearing, adjudication hearing, and a disposition hearing in respective order.
Firstly, a detention hearing is held to establish whether the minor's offense warrants them to be released or if they should remain in police custody pending trial. Release on bail does not apply to cases of offenders below 18 years. Minors apprehended for the commission of a crime must be brought to court within forty-eight hours of their arrest.
If the offense is an infraction, the minor will likely be released on a fine in a detention hearing. However, if the crime is severe, the case proceeds to a fitness hearing. Your attorney must fight for the lawsuit against the minor to end at this stage; otherwise, it will be harder to evade stringent penalties as the case proceeds.
A fitness hearing is then initiated to establish if the minor will be judged in a juvenile delinquency court or adult criminal court. The process by which a juvenile court determines this decision is known as a "judicially controlled transfer." After the judge decides, the case proceeds to either of the mentioned courts, depending on the judge's verdict. Supposing the lawsuit is set to be carried out in a juvenile court. In that case, the fourth and final hearing, the disposition trial is arranged, and the minor is judged and sentenced as per the juvenile court's penalties. The jurisdiction of a juvenile court ends when the protégé reaches 21years.
It is important to note that a juvenile who holds a past conviction in an adult court will also be charged in an adult court for subsequent offenses. California applies the "once an adult always adult" regardless of the nature of the next crime.
Furthermore, some offenses will be directly charged in an adult court if the minor is above fourteen years. This action excludes the juvenile from being a ward of the court through "statutory exclusion.” In such a situation, the case will not undergo any juvenile court procedures. However, if the offense is not a severe felony, it can be in the juvenile court and be transferred to an adult court after the minor loses the fitness hearing. Let us look at an overview of what happens in a fitness hearing.
Juvenile Court Transfer Hearing
When a minor is arrested, the police can let them off on a reprimand or forward the case to the county probation department if it is a felony. A petition is filed against the child at this stage, similar to a complaint in an adult court. The minor is entitled to legal representation during the process.
Typically, through "prosecutorial discretion transfer," a prosecutor can charge the minor directly in an adult court or initiate the transfer hearing for the judge to determine whether the minor’s trial will be in a juvenile or adult court. The hearing is also known as a “fitness hearing.” The hearing also determines if the child would benefit from minor offenders’ programs to rehabilitate them. The prosecutor holds the burden of proof and must prove that the child is "unfit" for a juvenile delinquency trial and requires a more severe judgment in an adult court.
As the child's parent, you are entitled to attend the court hearing. Supposing the child's lawyer cannot prove that the case is within the juvenile jurisdiction. In that case, the judge authorizes an adult court trial. For the prosecutor to instigate a fitness hearing, the following conditions must be present.
- The child should be at least 16 years and allegedly committed a crime outlined in the W&I Code 707 (b)
- The defendant was 14 years or above when they committed the crime, and they were not arrested until they were 18 years or above
- If the minor who previously was a ward of the court commits a felony, they will be deemed “unfit” to undergo trial under the juvenile court’s jurisdiction
The judge establishes whether the minor will face an adult trial by considering factors such as:
- The extent of criminal complexity unveiled by the actions of the minor
- The past delinquent history of the child
- Whether the child would benefit or be reformed by the rehabilitation provided within the juvenile court’s jurisdiction
- If it is not the minor’s first offense, the judge considers whether past efforts to rehabilitate them were a success
- And the severity of the crime the child is accused of committing
If the minor loses the transfer hearing, they can file a petition to challenge the judge's decision. The motion should be filed in written form and brought to court within 20 days after the minor's transfer trial. It is critical to involve an attorney as they are better positioned to represent you in the delicate and complicated court procedures.
Assuming the child is fortunate, the judge decides to hear the felony charges within the juvenile court’s jurisdiction. In that case, they can be required to commit to the California Youth Authority (CYA), which acts as a prison for convicted minors. The CYA is currently known as the Division of Juvenile Justice. The CYA is found in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Children remain under the CYA until they reach 25years.
Adult Criminal Trial Procedures for Minors Tried as Adults
Trials, where minors are charged as adults, are carried out in criminal courts under a set procedure. Since the adult court procedures differ from those of juvenile courts, there is a summary of the processes a minor would be subjected to in an adult court. Generally, the steps start with the arrest, followed by the prosecutor filing charges, arraignment in court, trial, the verdict, sentencing. Finally, the convicted minor is given a chance to appeal.
Arrest - similar to the juvenile system, a criminal trial starts with an arrest by the police. The police must outline to the offender the reason for their arrest. The arresting officer must write a report citing the probable cause for the arrest and other relevant information such as witnesses' names. The prosecutor pursues the case, and based on the police report, they decide on the crimes for which to prosecute the offender.
Filing of Complaints - since the defendant holds a right to a speedy hearing, the prosecutor needs to file the charges within the set time of 48 hours after the arrest; an exception to this period is accepted in the case of a public holiday, mandatory court closure days and weekends.
Arraignment - the accused appears in court for the first time to be notified of charges filed against them. The laws the defendant violated and constitutional rights they are entitled to are outlined, including the right to an attorney and that the court will provide one if the defendant is not in a position to acquire one. The minor can then answer the charges by pleading guilty, no contest, or not guilty. A criminal defense attorney will guide the defendant on the best options depending on the situation.
Pleading guilty means the defendant accepts that they committed the charged crime. It will lead to the case procedure's termination, and the accused will be automatically convicted of the crime. On the other hand, pleading not guilty means the defendant wants the prosecutor to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt in trial or is a planned out strategy to begin plea bargain negotiations. Lastly, a no-contest plea means that the accused agrees with the complaint filed. A no-contest petition saves one from the "guilty plea," which can be used in a civil lawsuit by the victim.
Preliminary Hearing - since the offense transferred to an adult court must be a felony, the judge holds a preliminary hearing if the case is not settled at the arraignment stage. The hearing helps determine if the prosecution contains credible evidence against the accused child before proceeding to trial. Once it is established that there is sufficient evidence, the prosecutor files a motion known as "the information," which initiates another arraignment in court.
Before trial, the defense and the prosecution must exchange information about the case in a process called "discovery." The respondent's attorney can then analyze the evidence and prepare a defense. Furthermore, either side can file motions to either cancel the complaint, change the plea, or suppress specific proof. At this point, the accused and prosecution can choose to settle the case without a trial or agree to a plea bargain.
Trial - if the case is still on after the preliminary hearing, it proceeds to trial. If the minor is in custody, the prosecution must be held within 30 days of arraignment. If the defendant is not in police custody, the trial should be set before the expiry of forty days after a plea or after the arraignment. The respondent chooses whether they would prefer judgment by a jury or by a judge.
Most defendants will prefer a jury so that their case can be determined by age mates who are most likely to resonate with their case, thereby boosting their chances of being judged as not guilty. The jurors are chosen by the attorneys and are required to be fair and impartial. Even though minors are not entitled to undergo trial by a jury, an exception can be made if they are tried in an adult court. However, under specific circumstances, the trial decision can require judgment to be strictly made.
Apart from pleading guilty before trial, the only other way an accused party can be termed guilty is if a judge or jury decides after completing all court proceedings. Therefore before that, the minor is presumed to be innocent. In the trial, both sides present witnesses and evidence to prove their sides of the case. Then the attorneys air their closing remarks, and the jury is allowed to decide whether the accused is guilty as charged or not guilty.
Once the judgment is made, if the respondent is found not guilty, the charges against them are acquitted. The arrest and the acquittal will still appear on their record. To be expunged of the arrest and acquittal, they must file for a motion called "finding of innocence" to prove factual innocence. On the other hand, if the accused is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a sentence or a suitable penalty is passed.
The Appeal Process
If your child undergoes trial and the verdict is guilty as charged, there is still a chance to prove their innocence by filing an appeal. Consult a criminal defense attorney to determine whether the minor’s case can result in a not guilty verdict if appealed. Your lawyer will also inform you of the conditions of an appeal and the period within which you can file the appeal.
Penalties for Offenses Which Minors are Tried as Adults
If a minor undergoes a trial at an adult court, they will be exposed to penalties as an adult charged with the same crime. It can include probationary terms, high fines, and jail terms, including life imprisonment, with the possibility of parole. The minor can also be subject to a combination of the mentioned punishments. The penalty provided is usually per the specific crime and aggravating factors and the accused's past criminal records. Some crimes carry sentence enhancements, which will subject the juvenile to further penalties.
Are Minors Subject to a Death Penalty?
The answer is NO. In California, a minor or a person who committed a crime when they were under 18 can never be eligible to face the death penalty no matter their offense’s circumstances. Such authorization would be cruel and unusual and a breach of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. Furthermore, a judge is not justified in subjecting a minor to a penalty of life imprisonment without parole; unless the minor's crime is that of a homicide.
Adult Trials VS Juvenile Adjudication
Juveniles charged under an adult criminal court or juvenile court are entitled to certain similar rights, including
- The right to be informed of the crime they are accused of committing and the charges against them.
- The right to legal representation. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, a public attorney is provided.
- The defendant is entitled to the right to refrain from providing self-incriminating information.
- The defendant has the right to cross-examine any witnesses testifying against them.
- Finally, for the defendant to be prosecuted, the prosecutor should prove them guilty beyond any reasonable doubt.
The terms in a juvenile proceeding differ from those used in adult proceedings. For instance, a first-time offense committed by a minor is termed a "delinquent act" while an adult offender would be a crime. Juveniles undergo adjudication hearings as compared to adults who face trials.
Furthermore, juvenile cases are exclusively determined by a judge since the law does not allow juries for minors. Even though juveniles are not entitled to a trial by a jury, some exceptions do exist. Typically, a jury trial is possible for children if they are charged under or transferred to an adult court. Offenders below 18 are also ineligible for public trials or the right to bail.
Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
Even though the juvenile delinquent court is designed to avoid a minor’s convictions in adult courts, an offense's nature can lead to such measures being necessary. Consequently, if you are a minor or have a child facing criminal charges, ensure that you can access a litigator. Whether the charges are filed in an adult or juvenile court can impact the defendant's life on a long-term basis.
Consider contacting The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm if you need a criminal defense attorney to represent you in a case of a juvenile delinquent court or an adult trial. Upon contacting us, we will immediately analyze your case and build a strong defense to challenge the prosecutor's allegations. Being result-oriented, our attorneys will stop at nothing in ascertaining that your rights are upheld. Our law firm provides tried and tested legal services in Los Angeles, California, and the surrounding areas. Contact us at 310-935-1675 for an efficient legal presentation.