When a minor – someone under the age of 18 – is alleged to have committed a crime under the laws of the state of California, their case is typically prosecuted in the juvenile court system.
While the same substantive laws apply to juvenile conduct as well as adult conduct, the procedural mechanisms used to process juvenile criminal cases differ substantially from those in adult court.
This article will discuss the juvenile criminal court process, culminating in a juvenile court adjudication, which is the juvenile court equivalent of a trial in adult criminal court.
In a juvenile delinquency court in California, a trial for a minor is known as an “adjudication hearing," where the judge decides if a minor committed a crime and whether they should be punished. As stated, many of the same rules apply in juvenile court and adult court, but there is no jury and the entire process is less formal.
The prosecutor has the task of proving the minor did in fact commit a crime beyond any reasonable doubt. Like adult criminal court, both sides are allowed to make arguments and present evidence.
Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers represent minors in adjudication hearings in all LA County juvenile courts. Let's review below.
Juvenile Court Adjudication Hearing
As stated above, in juvenile delinquency courts in California, a minor's trial is commonly called an adjudication hearing. It's different from an adult court where a defendant is found not guilty or guilty by a jury.
At the minor's adjudication hearing, the judge makes all the decision, including if the minor broke the law. If the judge determines the allegations are true, they will sustain the petition that was filed by the prosecutor.
Adjudication hearings are an opportunity for a minor to defend themselves against the charges and have many similarities to an adult court, such as:
- The right to have a lawyer
- The right to present a defense
- The right against self-incrimination
- The right to subpoena witnesses
Also, like an adult court, the prosecutor must be able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
If the minor is in custody, they have a right to the adjudication hearing with 15 court days of the date detention, not including weekends and holidays. If the minor is not in custody, then the minor has the right to the hearing within 30 calendar days after the petition was filed, but these timeframes can be extended.
California Laws Governing Criminal Cases
A crucial point for readers to understand is that the substantive law governing criminal cases is almost always the same in juvenile court as in adult court. This means that a burglary is still a burglary if committed by a 16-year-old, a robbery is still a robbery if the robber is 15-years-old, etc.
There is a narrow category of crimes which depend on the age of the defendant or the relative age disparity between the defendant and the alleged victim which could change this general rule.
For instance, possession of an open container of alcohol by someone under 21 by its very nature cannot be committed by a 22 year-old. Similarly, the subdivision of the statutory rape laws which enhances penalties if the age disparity between the parties was over 3 years could not apply to conduct between a 17 year-old and a 16 year-old.
However, in most cases, the standard criminal law provisions which govern adult conduct also apply to juvenile cases. Put another way, being a minor is generally not a defense to a criminal accusation in of itself.
Rehabilitation rather than punishment
The criminal law does recognize that in some sense a minor is less morally culpable than a similarly situated adult defendant. For that reason, the juvenile investigative and court process focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment, particularly in the case of non-violent first-time offenders.
Many cases which would be prosecuted in adult court are simply diverted to an informal system of probationary supervision in juvenile court.
For the more serious cases, however, a juvenile “petition,” is filed. This is the equivalent of a criminal complaint or indictment in adult court. When a petition has been filed and the parties cannot reach a negotiated settlement, the case proceeds to an adjudication.
What Happens at the Adjudication Hearing?
This is most analogous to a bench trial, rather than a jury trial, in adult court. Juveniles do not have a right to trial by jury in their adjudications. This means that a juvenile court judge will be the ultimate determiner of facts and assessor of the credibility of witnesses.
This can be both a positive and a negative. On the one hand, a judge is oftentimes relatively more immune to emotionally charged or outrageous factual allegations which might raise the passions of a jury.
On the other hand, a jury trial only requires a defendant in adult court to sway one out of twelve people in order to avoid conviction. At a juvenile adjudication, the judge is the sole individual in whom decision making authority is vested.
The adjudication has most of the features of a trial in adult court. Live witness testimony will be presented. The attorneys will offer evidentiary objections, make motions in limine, rely on both fact and expert witnesses, and make legal arguments to support their positions.
After the conclusion of the adjudication, the judge will either dismiss or sustain the petition. A sustained petition is the juvenile court equivalent of a conviction in adult court.
If a petition is sustained, the juvenile court judge will pass sentence on the minor. This can include probation with supervisory conditions such as a curfew, community service, mandatory counseling, a requirement to maintain good grades, or other conditions designed to promote rehabilitation of the minor.
In more serious cases, the juvenile court judge may sentence the minor to custody time in the youth authority. No matter how serious the case is, a minor cannot be detained in the youth authority beyond their 25th birthday.
Juvenile Criminal Defense Lawyers
It should be noted that in the most serious cases, a juvenile court district attorney may petition the court to “certify” the minor to adult court. While previously this determination was more discretionary for the district attorney's office, voters have changed the rules by referendum such that judicial approval is now required in most cases.
A petition to certify a juvenile to adult court is most commonly seen in murder cases and in those very serious felony offenses committed by juveniles aged 16 or 17 who have prior criminal histories.
If you or a family member is charged with a criminal offense as a juvenile, contact our experienced team of juvenile criminal defense attorneys for an initial consultation.
Eisner Gorin LLP is a criminal law firm located at 1875 Century Park E #705, Los Angeles, CA 90067 and 14401 Sylvan St #112 Van Nuys, CA 91401. Contact us to review the details of your case at (310) 328-3776.