A Parents’ Guide to Criminal Charges

Summer is upon us. Kids are out of school. The weather is heating up (if Houston doesn’t end up a lost city in the tradition of Atlantis). And juvenile and criminal lawyers know that one thing is inevitable: kids are fixin’ to get into trouble. The parents have already begun pouring into my office at their wits’ end, wondering if Junior has just ruined his shot at a college education or a good job. If you find yourself among the new adult fraternity of custodian-of-an-alleged-criminal, here are four things that you should know:

  1. Don’t panic. This is normal.

As parents, we want the best for our children. When we see them making bad decisions, it’s easy to lose perspective. Suddenly our own youthful indiscretions fade and we’re ready to line up beside the prosecutor to let our not-so-little-one face the consequences of his actions. It’s easy to forget what we all know intuitively, and what science confirms: that until age 25 the part of our brain that makes good decisions isn’t fully developed yet. So we mess up. The offenses I see most often are shoplifting, fights (assault), marijuana (and other drug) possession, and driving while intoxicated (DWI).

As a first step, please, take a deep breath and do your best to see this situation objectively. As you’ll see, this could be a pivotal moment in your child’s life. And how you handle it (and the legal result) very well could define your son or daughter’s opportunities in the future.

  1. Not all children are juveniles

In Texas, the age of majority for criminal conduct is 17. That’s not the case in every state and when I told a colleague in another state that recently, it was very hard for him to fathom. Truly, it yields some very odd results. For example, your son could be part of a group of knucklehead kids who peer pressure each other to throw a rock through a convenience store window and steal some Little Debbie snack cakes (Trust me, guys. That’s a thing). Say they’re all between their sophomore and junior year of high school. They’ll all be charged with burglary of a building: a state jail felony.

If yours is the 16 year old, he’ll be charged as a juvenile. Even if he’s found criminally responsible, there will be some very significant protections for his criminal records. But if he’s 17, he’ll be charged as an adult with a felony. Any resolution short of a dismissal of the charges or a win at trial will work significant havoc on your young person’s criminal record—even if he’s not actually convicted.

  1. Convictions are permanent

Along those lines, even if your child is charged with a crime, there are many potential outcomes outside of a conviction. The most important thing a lawyer can do is try to avoid a conviction. In Texas, there is no such thing as an expunction for a conviction. An expunction is a permanent deletion—a shredding—of a record. The remedy is available in Texas under certain circumstances—a not guilty verdict, for example—but not for a conviction. Generally speaking, a conviction (felony or misdemeanor) is a life sentence. It does not go away. (There are some exceptions, such as a post conviction writ of habeas corpus or a governor’s pardon, but suffice it to say that any post-conviction remedy is rare and shouldn’t be counted on).

The moral of all that is to say that no matter how much trouble Junior is in at home, letting him blow his chances for a decent job, a professional license, or a college education probably isn’t the way you want to send that message. And the only time to fight those charges is now.

Even with juvenile charges, under certain circumstances, certain punishments can be used against your child for some purposes. The best thing to do is to hire a competent lawyer and aggressively fight the charges.

  1. Pretrial detention is not helpful

For a variety of reasons, pretrial detention is ordinarily a bad thing. For adults (remember, anyone 17 or older), the criminally accused are held in jail technically, only to assure that they’ll make it to court. They can be released from jail under three different circumstances indicating that they’ll return to face their charges: 1) a cash bond; 2) a surety bond; and 3) a pretrial release bond (also called a personal recognizance bond). A cash bond is an amount of money, paid in full, to the court. The money is collateral to insure appearance. If Junior makes it to every court setting without fail, when the charges are resolved, the whole sum will be returned to whoever paid it on his behalf. A surety bond is a variation on this theme. A portion of the amount (customarily 10%) can be paid to a surety bonding company (go downtown and you can’t miss them—they’re everywhere). The bonding company accepts their payment in exchange for taking on the risk that Junior may not show. If he doesn’t, either they’re on the hook for the full amount or they make sure he’s found. There’s more to it that that, but that’s the basic picture: you pay 10%, Junior gets out, you don’t get the money back. A pretrial bond is a “free” bond (Actually the courts usually charge 3% of the total amount in order to pay fees of pretrial supervision) where Junior is released essentially on his own promise to show back up—or “recognizance.”

The process is totally different for kids under 17. If you weren’t called right away and asked to pick Junior up, odds are the judge thinks Junior is a danger or menace and/or they don’t think very much of his home life. Children are held pretrial in a detention center—technically not a jail but just like a jail—with their peers. And they’re entitled to a hearing to consider their release within 2 days initially, and every ten days after that. The first job of a diligent lawyer is to secure your child’s release.

Studies show that the longer pretrial incarceration continues, the more likely a person is to find him or herself subsequently locked up. There are lots of theories about why that is. It could be that during confinement a person finds himself surrounded by anti-social peers. Or that he falls further behind in school, misses positive opportunities, loses his job, etc.—all negative influences which can be hard to overcome.

Additionally, juveniles and adults find themselves in much worse bargaining positions when they are incarcerated than they otherwise would if free. If, for example, Junior is charged with marijuana possession and is incarcerated, his number one priority is to get out of jail. If offered a plea agreement that effectuates that goal, you can bet he’ll take it—even at the expense of his permanent criminal record. On the other hand, if he’s out on bond or released from detention, suddenly he’s better able to share the lawyer’s goal of protecting his criminal record.

I say all of that fully recognizing that very often criminal charges come against children when parents are already at the end of their ropes. For me, being a lawyer sometimes feels like it should have required a degree in social work. The waters are difficult to navigate, but a good juvenile lawyer should be able to help you find a way to both protect your child’s record and get at the root of the behavior that’s landed him in this serious trouble. Even having said that, at the end of the day, everyone has to come to peace with the fact that only Junior has control over Junior’s actions, and the one person most capable of helping or torpedoing his case is Junior.

So with all of that, remember this summer to keep a little perspective. Grab a slice of watermelon, pop in your old tape of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and consider what legal trouble those kids would have found themselves in had the police caught up to them. If you can bear it, perhaps even meditate on the consequences you were spared for your own high school hijinks. Then, when you’re feeling a little more one with your inner teenager, get on your Google machine and call around for a good lawyer. You’ll thank yourself later. Trust me.

About Phil Gommels

Phil Gommels is a criminal defense attorney in Houston, Texas. He is the founding attorney at The Law Office of Philip M. Gommels, PLLC. Phil is a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves, and a former Harris County prosecutor. He frequently speaks on issues surrounding criminal justice and technology.

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