If you’ve got teens living in your house, you know: summer vacation can be fun, but also stressful. Endless free time means idle hands and minds, and as the saying goes, trouble often follows. As a parent, how can you keep an eye on your teen and prevent them from getting into legal trouble?
Austin attorney Will Mitchell has seen his share of juvenile cases. As a criminal law attorney, he’s gotten plenty of calls from worried parents, needing help when their child was facing legal trouble. As a Texas Legal attorney, Mitchell was happy to share some tips with parents on how to prevent and deal with legal trouble with teens and young people. Despite the perception that criminal attorneys represent the bad guys, Mitchell says he loves his job because the people he represents are just “good people having a very bad day.”
Prevent Legal Trouble Through Communication
The most important thing Mitchell had to share, as an attorney and a father, is to try to keep communication lines open with your teen.
“I believe in letting kids be kids, but I do want to make sure I have an open line of communication that we can trust each other,” says Mitchell. “I try to explain – if we do this, these are the potential consequences.”
“Lawyers aren’t cheap you’re going to have to have a lawyers. The court system is not cheap, and it’s going to cost you a lot of money,” says Mitchell. “It could cost you your freedom, and it could cost you your ability to drive a car. It could damage your ability to get student loans, or even get a job or an internship.”
As for parents, Mitchell advises knowing where your kids are going, who they are hanging out with, and to use your senses – what you see, what you smell and what your gut tells you about what might be going on.
Know the Legal System
Here are some of the most common crimes Mitchell says he sees juveniles facing:
- Minor in Possession of Alcohol
- Driving Under the Influence
- Driving While Intoxicated
- Possession of Marijuana or other Controlled Substances
- Boating While Intoxicated
- Reckless Boating
Many teens don’t realize how little they have to do to be charged with a crime,
“You’re at the river with your buddies, and you have an ice chest that’s got beer in it – that’s a class C ticket with a fine of $500 and it takes away your drivers license,” says Mitchell. “At 16 you can get a diverse license, but if you’re under the age of 21 and you’ve had anything to drink at all, whether it’s a sip or a six pack, it’s a $500 fine and 60-day license suspension if convicted.”
In addition, many people don’t realize that the state of Texas charges anyone 17 years and older as an adult, which can mean stricter penalties, a permanent criminal record and time in adult jail. And depending on the prosecutor, Mitchell has seen cases where something that seemed completely harmless got his clients in serious trouble.
“We handled a case a couple of years ago where some guys were floating down the river in the summer time. They got out on some property and found an abandoned barn. They went inside it and took an old nail. They got charged with burglary! There’s little things like that that seem like nothing that can turn into a felony pretty quickly,” says Mitchell.
Know the Local Legal System
Although Mitchell practices primarily in Austin, he has clients all over the state, and one thing he’s noticed how much a person’s location can affect their charges. In Austin, he says, charges for possession of marijuana are often dropped or given community service, but that’s not the case in a lot of other places around Texas.
“Get caught with marijuana 30 miles south of here, and you’re going to go to jail, you’re going to go to court, and it’s probably going to mean a large fine,” says Mitchell.
Another oddity with marijuana in Texas is the varying punishments for what kind of marijuana you’re caught with. One flaw Mitchell points out in Texas’ current criminal statues is the difference between leafy marijuana – most commonly referred to as pot or weed – and marijuana oil, which is much more potent. Although they both come from the cannabis plant, possession of each substance has wildly different consequences.
“The leafy substance is a class B misdemeanor, while less than a gram of the oil is a state jail felony,” says Mitchell.
Bring the oil onto school grounds, and the penalties are even tougher – a third-degree felony with a max of 10 years in prison.
“It’s really stupid of a kid do to bring this oil to school, but it’s also a really dumb idea to make that offense punishable by 10 years in prison,” says Mitchell. “It’s grossly unfair to punish that person so differently than a same kid that brought a joint to school.
Kid in Trouble? Get a Lawyer
The idiosyncrasies of the law, your location, the crime and the penalties are just a few of the reasons why you and your teen need a lawyer if you face legal trouble.
Mitchell cites a recent client who handled a potentially serious criminal situation perfectly. A teen was pulled over with an ice chest of beer in his trunk. His cousin happened to drive by and see the situation and called the teen’s parents. His parents’ first call was to Mitchell, who was able to handle the situation before things got out of hand.
“I get them out of jail, then into the office and figure out what’s going on,” says Mitchell. “I know what procedures are necessary, will make sure that court appearances aren’t missed and know what to do before your court date to help you in court. Unless the parents are lawyers themselves, they’re not going to go through any of that.”
If you get a call from your teen in jail, make sure you remember this important fact: jail calls are always recorded, says Mitchell, and anything you say in jail can and will be used against you.
“The call is going to be listened to by a police officer or a prosecutor,” says Mitchell. “Anything they say while they’re in there is going to be heard.”
Repeat Offender? Know When To Help and When Make It a Life Lesson
If your teen is repeatedly getting into legal trouble, it’s tough to know what to do. Do you continue to help them so that the legal consequences won’t wreck their life, or do you need to let your child experience the consequences of their actions, in the hopes that they won’t do it again? Mitchell says it depends a lot on the age of the child and your relationship with them.
“If it’s someone who is still in your house and dependent on you for money and shelter and food, then you want to handle it by treating it as if it’s you’re problem,” says Mitchell.
On the other hand, says Mitchell, it can be important for parents to realize there is a limit to how much they can help, especially if a child has left home.
“I have parents come in who say, ‘I’ve been through this with this kid so many times that I can’t do it anymore,'” he says.” I hear that and it’s very depressing, and I hear the defeated feeling as a parent that you somehow failed. But when the kid’s out of the house, it’s not your responsibility any more.”
Mitchell emphasizes that every situation is different.
“There’s no right way to do it – it’s all about the relationship. If a kid gets in trouble time and time again, it’s up to the kid at that point to realize this is a big problem. If it’s a first time or second time offense, and you’re worried about them, you take care of it for them,” he says.
Get Help When You Need It
If your child is on your Texas Legal plan, your plan covers their defense for juvenile charges, as well as criminal charges. So if you face legal trouble with your teen, don’t hesitate to call a lawyer. Remember, you can always use our online attorney finder to locate someone near you, or call our customer service line toll-free at 1-800-252-9346.