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juvenile drug possession texas

Drugs, Kids, and Juvenile Justice in Texas

By | Juvenile

What Every Parent Needs to Know About Drug Crimes and the Juvenile Justice Process

juvenile drug possession texasOne of the most common way for teenagers to run afoul of the law is with drugs. Between peer pressure, synthetic drugs, and confusion over possession vs. ownership, there are many pitfalls surrounding the topic of drugs for kids. Many times, parents aren’t even aware their child has been exposed to drugs until that child is in trouble. Here are some basic things that every parents needs to know about kids and drugs before it’s too late.

Levels of Drug Offenses and Ranges of Punishment in Texas

In Texas, criminal offenses are divided into two major categories: Felonies and Misdemeanors, with felonies being the more serious. Except for possession of small amounts of marijuana or prescription drugs, all other drug offenses in Texas are felonies. This means that this is a very big deal if your child is arrested for drugs.

In the juvenile system, the punishment for misdemeanors ranges from nothing up to probation until that child’s 18th birthday. This probation can be served out at home. However, if appropriate, the court can order the child to a treatment facility, boys’ ranch, or some other kind of placement as part of the probation.

The punishment options for felonies in the juvenile system, like for misdemeanors, include doing nothing and probation up to a child’s 18th birthday (with or without placement outside of the home). For felonies, however, the court also can commit a child to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), which is the prison system in Texas for kids. A commitment to TJJD can last up until a child’s 19th birthday.

Synthetic Drugs – A Moving Target

Some of the most popular drugs in use today are synthetic or designer drugs. They go by a variety of nicknames including K2, bath salts, and Spice. These particular drugs are especially dangerous for a number of reasons. First, because they are a chemically altered variation of an illegal drug, they are legal in many cases. The legislature is still struggling to write the laws in such a way to criminalize all of these variations. As they make one chemical formula illegal, the chemists making these drugs alter it to escape prosecution. The law is making headway in this field, but it is a slow process. Because of this loophole, many of these synthetic drugs are legally sold in stores and over the internet. This makes it very easy for kids to get their hands on them.

The second reason why these drugs are particularly dangerous is because there is no way for a user to know what exactly is in the dose they are taking due to the rapidly changing chemical alterations that are being made to stay ahead of the law. The K2 your child takes today may be drastically different from the dose he took last week. There is also no way to know what side effects a specific chemical combination will have on a particular person or even the human body generally.

Part of the reason why these drugs are so popular with kids is because it is almost impossible to detect them. Because of the quickly changing chemical makeups of these drugs, it’s difficult to develop a drug test that can detect them all. Additionally, most parents have never heard of these drugs, which makes it easier for kids to get away with using them without their parents realizing what they are doing. This difficulty in detecting these drugs makes it more likely for kids to abuse these particular substances.

Prescription Drugs

Another category of drugs that has risen in popularity with teenagers is prescription drugs. These are used frequently by kids because they are easy to get their hands on. All they have to do is to go to the medicine cabinet at home and help themselves to whatever drugs are on the shelf. It doesn’t matter what the prescription is for or who it belongs to, it can be abused by kids. Teens have been known to sell and/or use pills prescribed for everything from ADD to depression to high blood pressure. When parents are unaware of the potential for kids to take these medicines, they are unlikely to secure them in order to keep them away from their teenagers. There have been several cases recently in Tarrant County where kids have been arrested at school for illegally selling or possessing a prescription drug that they took from their parents.

Ownership vs. Possession

When it comes to the drug laws, many kids are confused about the difference between ownership vs. possession. The law makes it illegal to possess drugs, regardless of who owns them. In fact, because drugs are considered “contraband,” the law doesn’t consider anyone to “own” them. Many kids, when busted for possessing drugs, will say, “But it’s not mine. I was just holding it for my friend.” They don’t understand that this means they are breaking the law, not their friend. Possession is defined as having care, custody, and control of something. This means that if you have the drugs in your pocket, you are in possession of them whether you “own” them or not.

Many “good kids” who wouldn’t dream of committing a crime will get caught holding drugs for their friends. Because they don’t understand that, if caught, they will be the guilty party and not their friend, they agree to hold onto the drugs for their buddy. It’s important that parents talk to their kids and explain this aspect of the law and the effect it can have.

Common Situations Where Kids Encounter Drugs

As I said at the beginning, drugs are a common reason why kids find themselves in the juvenile justice system and in alternative school for a period of time. It is a slippery slope that many teenagers find themselves on before they even realize what has happened. Below are some of the most common places for kids to encounter drugs.

1. School
Our kids spend a good deal of their time at school. By the time a kid gets into middle school and high school, a big chunk of their social circle is centered around school. School is also the place where they are likely to encounter a wide variety of different people. So, it’s no wonder, that it is also the place where many kids first encounter drugs. Not only do the school administrators and teachers have to be on the alert for drugs in school, but parents also need to be aware and be proactive in preparing kids to walk away when they encounter drug activity in the school environment.

2. Friends
When kids are in their preteen and teenage years, peer pressure is a very powerful force. Many kids are first exposed to drugs by their friends. Therefore, it is important, as parents, to know our kids’ friends and to be around them enough to pick up on whether these friends have a problem with drugs before our kids follow the same path. It’s also important for parents to consistently work on having that open communication with their kids so that, when the time comes, your kids can feel comfortable coming to talk to you about drugs and friends. Kids also need to know that if they are ever asked to hold onto to drugs for their friends, that they must say no, even if it means losing a friend over it.

3. Cars
Cars present a tricky scenario for kids when it comes to drugs. If your teen gets into the car with someone who has drugs, it is very possible that your child will get charged with the drugs if they are pulled over by police. When police and prosecutors are looking at who within a car to charge with possession of the drugs, they will many times look to the person who was sitting the closest to the drugs. If someone else in the car drops their stash of drugs near your child, then it may appear that your child was the one in possession.

This is a situation where parents need to talk to their children about how easy it is for them to be in a car with others and be held responsible for the actions of those other people. Kids need to be very careful about who they get into a car with. Parents need to prepare their kids to make the right decision when confronted with whether to get in a car with someone or not.

Conclusion

While it is common for otherwise “good kids” to get in trouble with the law when it comes to drugs, it is not inevitable. If parents take the time to educate themselves and their kids about the pitfalls that drugs can create, they can help their teenagers to avoid getting involved in the juvenile justice system.

About the Author

Christy Dunn is a writer and attorney licensed to practice in Texas. She was a prosecutor for 15 years. The last five years of her prosecutorial career was spent in the Juvenile Division of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. She has tried over 20 juvenile cases in Texas and multiple certification hearings. She was part of the multidisciplinary team that created a Project SAFeR.

Juvenile Certification Process in Texas

Juvenile or Adult? The Juvenile Certification Process in Texas

By | Juvenile

The Nuts and Bolts of the Juvenile Certification Process

Juvenile Certification Process in TexasThe juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction over offenses committed by juveniles (children ages 10-17)  in Texas. The only exception to this, according to Texas Family Code Section 54.02, is when the court waives its jurisdiction and transfers a juvenile to an adult district court to face the adult criminal justice process. This is what is called certifying a juvenile as an adult. The Family Code lays out a process for when and how a juvenile may be certified.

The Process of Certification

Family Code Section 54.02 actually lays out two different processes for certification. One process is for cases in which the charged person is still a juvenile. The other one is for cold cases where the person accused was a juvenile at the time of the offense, but became an adult prior to the time the case went to court. This latter process is commonly referred to as a post-18 certification.

In all cases, per Section 54.02(a), the juvenile court may certify someone as an adult ONLY if the following factors are met:

  1. the alleged offense is a felony
  2. the child was 14 or older at the time of the offense if the alleged offense was a first degree felony, a capital felony, or an aggravated controlled substance felony or the child was 15 or older for any other felony
  3. no adjudication hearing has taken place for that offense, and
  4. during a hearing, the court finds that there is probable cause to believe the juvenile committed the offense.

Additionally, in all cases, the court must order, prior to the hearing, a complete diagnostic study to be done on the juvenile, which is to include information about his circumstances and the circumstances of the crime. This study must then be given to the court, prosecutor, and defense attorney prior to the hearing. This is required by Section 54.02(d) and (e).

The “Normal” Certification Process in Texas

If the person who is the subject of a certification proceeding is under the age of 18 at the time of court, under Section 54.02(a), the court must determine whether the welfare of the community requires the child to be certified as an adult due to either the seriousness of the offense or the background of the child. In making this determination, the court must take into account, along with other things, whether the crime was committed against a person or property, the sophistication and maturity of the child, the record and previous history of the child, the potential of adequate protection of the public, and the likelihood of appropriate rehabilitation of the child using the resources and services available in the juvenile system. These factors are laid out in Section 54.02(f).

Post-18 Certification in Texas

For cold cases, in which a person was a juvenile at the time of the offense, but is now an adult, the process is a little bit different. For these cases, the certification process is the only avenue available for prosecution. According to Section 54.02(j), in addition to the factors listed above regarding age and probable cause, which must be met in every certification case, the court must also find that either:

  • because of a reason beyond the control of the State, it was not practicable to proceed prior to the person’s 18th birthday or
  • after due diligence on the part of the State, it was not practicable to proceed with the case prior to the person’s 18th birthday because the State did not have probable cause and new evidence has been discovered since the 18th birthday.

Who Decides on Certification?

Initially, the District Attorney’s Office makes the decision whether to seek certification. If they decide to seek certification, then a hearing will be held. At the hearing, the juvenile court judge will be the person to determine whether the juvenile will be certified. There is no jury at a certification hearing. In Tarrant County, the juvenile prosecutor who is assigned to the case is the person who decides whether to pursue certification.

Across the state of Texas, certifications make up only a small percentage of juvenile cases. Most cases are kept in the juvenile system. In Tarrant County, there are only a handful of certification hearings held each year. Most of those are post-18 certifications on sex cases where the victim did not outcry about the offense until after the juvenile charged was 18 or older. On average, there are less than 5 certifications of juveniles who are still under the age of 18 per year in Tarrant County.

Possible Defenses to Juvenile Certification

Because the State must only prove by probable cause that the charged juvenile committed the offense, it is unlikely that defenses to the offense itself will be successful at a certification hearing. However, there are some other areas where a defense attorney can attack. In cases of a post-18 certification, the best possible avenues for the defense would be to attack the age of the juvenile at the time of the offense or the due diligence of law enforcement to investigate the case.

For normal certifications, a defense attorney should look to areas such as the maturity of the juvenile, and the likelihood of rehabilitation of the juvenile through the resources available in the juvenile system. A defense attorney should also highlight the positive aspects of the juvenile’s background, including responsible adults who could provide appropriate support and supervision for that child, positive educational and extra-curricular activities, and any treatment or mentoring that the child has had in the past which showed positive results. An attorney should also be pointing out things such as a low IQ, any mental health diagnosis, a lack of treatment for those problems, and how available resources within the juvenile system would be the best approach to address those things.

Legal Ramifications of Certification

If the juvenile court waives its jurisdiction and certifies a juvenile as an adult, the case will be transferred to adult court. From there, it will be treated as an adult case for all intents and purposes. The prosecutors must present the case to a grand jury for indictment. Adult punishment ranges will apply.
If, however, the juvenile court denies certification on an accused person who is still a juvenile, the case can still be pursued by the prosecution in juvenile court. In those post-18 certifications, if the court denies the certification, then the case is dead because the court will no longer, at that point, have jurisdiction over the person accused due to their age.

Certifying a juvenile as an adult is something that does not happen a lot in the State of Texas. It is even more rare in Tarrant County. However, when it does happen, there is a specific procedure laid out in Family Code Section 54.02 which must be followed in order for the certification to happen. The prosecutor gets to decide whether to seek certification, but it is up to the juvenile court judge to determine whether it will be granted. If granted, from that point on, the case and the juvenile will be treated as an adult and will be prosecuted in the adult system.

About the Author

Christy Dunn is a writer and attorney licensed to practice in Texas. She was a prosecutor for 15 years. The last five years of her prosecutorial career was spent in the Juvenile Division of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. She has tried over 20 juvenile cases in Texas and multiple certification hearings. She was part of the multidisciplinary team that created a Project SAFeR.

Juvenile Sex Crime Diversion Tarrant County

Project SAFeR: Juvenile Sex Crime Diversion Program in Fort Worth

By | Juvenile

Treatment without Labels: An Effective Program for Juveniles Charged with a Sex Crime in Tarrant County

Juvenile Sex Crime Diversion Tarrant CountyImagine this: You receive a call out of the blue from a detective telling you that he is investigating your 11-year-old son for sexually touching your 6-year-old niece. How do you protect your young son who is being charged with Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child? How do you choose between helping your son and helping your niece? Is there any way to get them both help without prosecuting your son? Will your son be labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life? Is there any way for your extended family to work this out?

While this may seem far-fetched, it happens more than you think. Fortunately, there is now a program in Tarrant County that can help without destroying the life of either child involved. It is called Project SAFeR.

What is Project SAFeR?

Project SAFeR (which stands for Safety and Family Resiliency) is a program in Tarrant County designed to help youth with problematic sexual behaviors who are between the ages of 7-12. There are three components to the program: legal, supervision, and counseling. The program, which started in July 2015, was created through a collaborative effort of Lena Pope Home, Alliance for Children, Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, Child Protective Services (CPS), Tarrant County Juvenile Services, and local law enforcement. The purpose of the program is to help the victim, young juvenile, and their families deal with the problem in an effective way so that both children may go on to lead productive lives.

What is Problematic Sexual Behavior?

Problematic sexual behavior is that which is goes beyond what is normal sexual development for a child’s age. It usually involves children who are quite a bit different in age or who are not considered equals due to maturity, size, or other factors. A child with problematic sexual behaviors will act out on another child who is not a willing participant, either through the use of force, threats, bribery, or some other type of coercion or persuasion. Problematic sexual behaviors interfere with normal, nonsexual, childhood interests and behaviors, and usually continue even after a child’s behavior has been discovered and reprimanded.

The Legal Component of Project SAFeR

Because kids under the age of 10 cannot be prosecuted for their actions in Texas, children between the ages of 7-9 who have problematic sexual behaviors, can be referred to the counseling program but will not be required to participate in the diversion or supervision components. For these children, a parent can contact Lena Pope Home in Fort Worth at 817-255-2500 for help (see below for more specifics on the counseling component).

For children between the ages of 10-12, law enforcement and/or CPS will likely be involved to some extent. Many times, these cases will be referred to Tarrant County Juvenile Services and the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office Juvenile Unit.

In order to be eligible to participate in the legal, or diversion, component of Project SAFeR, the charged juvenile must be between the ages of 10-12. If a juvenile is older than 12, he will be ineligible for the diversion program. Other eligibility requirements for the program are:

  • A multi-disciplinary team must decide that the case is appropriate for inclusion in the program based on the totality of the circumstances. This team screens cases for the program while they are still being investigated by CPS and law enforcement.
  • The victim’s family must agree to the charged juvenile being in the program. If the victim’s family does not agree, this alone will make the juvenile ineligible.
  • A risk assessment, which will be completed by the counselors involved in the program, must show the charged juvenile to be at a low risk to reoffend.

If all of these requirements are met, a juvenile’s case will be filed with the court by the prosecutor. The child will appear before a juvenile court judge and must admit to committing the offense. The judge will make a finding that there is enough evidence to find the juvenile guilty of the offense, but the judge will instead withhold judgement on the issue of delinquency and order the child into Project SAFeR.

If the juvenile successfully completes the supervision and counseling components of the program, the prosecutor will dismiss the case. If, however, the child is kicked out of the program, then he will return to court and will be found delinquent at that time and then will proceed to the disposition, or punishment, stage of the case. A juvenile who successfully completes Project SAFeR will, as a condition of the program, be eligible to have his record sealed upon his 16th birthday.

The Supervision Component of Project SAFeR

The supervision component of Project SAFeR is provided by Tarrant County Juvenile Services. If the child is allowed into the program, he will be assigned a juvenile probation officer who is a part of the Juvenile Offender Unit. The term of supervision will be up to 6 months in length. During that time, the juvenile must complete the counseling component of the program as well as go to school, not commit any new offenses, and obey his parents/guardians. The probation officer will check in on the juvenile, as well as check with his counselor and parents, on a regular basis while in the program.

The Sexual Counseling Component of Project SAFeR

The counseling piece of the program is provided by Lena Pope Home at their Fort Worth location. Both the child charged and at least one caregiver will be required to attend all counseling sessions while in the program. The counseling is once a week (on Monday nights) for 18 weeks.

The juvenile will attend a child’s group at the same time that his caregiver is attending a parents’ group each week. The two groups will be learning the similar material at the same time. So, for instance, during the week that the juvenile is learning the sexual behavior rules, his parent will be learning how to enforce those sexual behavior rules in the home. In addition to learning about sexual behavior rules and appropriate relationships, those in the program will also learn communication skills and stress relief strategies. Both the juvenile and parent must demonstrate that they have learned and are implementing the information taught in order to successfully complete the program. The counseling is provided free of charge to those in the program.

Outcomes and Benefits of Project SAFer

While this program has only been in existence in Tarrant County for a little over a year, it has been implemented in other parts of the country for many years. The program in Omaha, Nebraska, recently completed a 10-year follow-up study on those juveniles who completed their program. They found that of those who successfully completed the program, less than 2% committed a new sexual offense. This is a much lower reoffending rate than traditional sex offending treatment programs.

The majority of those who have been accepted into the Tarrant County Project SAFeR program have graduated. Many of those parents have indicated that the information they learned in the program not only helped them handle their children’s sexual behavior problems, but it also taught them to be better parents in general. The techniques and strategies taught in the counseling component have also been instrumental in helping parents to communicate better and have better relationships with their children. It has brought these families closer together.

Project SAFeR is taking a whole new approach to treating children with problematic sexual behaviors. It starts with NOT labeling or treating them as sex offenders. It approaches the problem from a family-focused point of view and treats it as a serious problem that the family can get through together, as opposed to treating the juvenile as if he is a sex offender who is doomed for the rest of his life. If your child is between the ages of 10-12 and is facing prosecution for a sex crime in Tarrant County, ask your attorney about whether Project SAFeR is the right approach for you and your family.

About the Author

Christy Dunn is a writer and attorney licensed to practice in Texas. She was a prosecutor for 15 years. The last five years of her prosecutorial career was spent in the Juvenile Division of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. She has tried over 20 juvenile cases in Texas and multiple certification hearings. She was part of the multidisciplinary team that created a Project SAFeR.

Juvenile Detention Hearing Tarrant County

Juvenile Detention Hearings: What are They and What Happens at Them?

By | Juvenile

Juvenile Detention Hearing Tarrant CountyIf a juvenile (a child between the ages of 10-16) is arrested, that person is taken to a juvenile detention center instead of jail. In the juvenile justice system, there is no such thing as bail. There is no amount of money a parent can pay to get their child out of detention. Instead, a detention hearing will be held. This article will explain what detention hearings are, why you need an attorney, and what happens during those hearings.

What Is a Juvenile Detention Hearing in Texas?

According to the Texas Family Code Section 54.01(a), a detention hearing is required to be held within two business days after a juvenile has been detained. If the juvenile is detained on a Friday or Saturday, then the detention hearing is required to be held on the first business day. If, after the initial hearing, a child is kept in detention, then the law requires additional detention hearings to be held every 10 business days for as long as that juvenile is in custody. If a juvenile is detained, his attorney can request an additional hearing sooner than 10 business days.

The purpose of these hearings is for a judge to determine whether the court should continue to detain that child or release him to a parent or another responsible adult while decisions about that juvenile’s case are made.

Family Code Section 54.01(e) requires that a juvenile be released at a detention hearing unless the judge finds that the juvenile:

  • is likely to abscond,
  • has inadequate supervision,
  • does not have an adult to bring him back to court,
  • is a danger to himself or the public safety, or
  • has previously been adjudicated for an offense and is likely to commit another offense if released.

Does My Child Need an Attorney for the Juvenile Detention Hearing?

The short answer is yes. Section 51.10 of the Family Code gives a juvenile the right to an attorney at all important stages of the process, including the detention hearing. This section goes on to say that if a child is not represented by a lawyer at a detention hearing and is detained, the court must immediately either appoint him an attorney or order the family to hire one.

The court will only appoint a lawyer if the judge determines that the family is indigent based on the court’s financial guidelines. Most families won’t meet this standard. If the court does appoint an attorney, the court will determine who that person is. This is done by looking at who is next up on the list. Whether your child gets a good attorney, or a bad one, is decided by the luck of the draw.

You can, however, hire a lawyer to represent your child before the first, or any, detention hearing. If you hire an attorney, you will get to decide who that is. You can pick out one that you feel comfortable handling such an important matter for your child.

Why Should I Hire a Juvenile Defense Attorney as Opposed to Getting a Court-Appointed One?

It is best if you hire a lawyer for your child prior to the initial detention hearing. If the court appoints an attorney, that person will meet you and your child for the first time at the detention hearing. During that hearing, or minutes before, will be the first time that the appointed lawyer will hear anything about your child’s case. In some instances, you won’t have an opportunity to talk to the appointed attorney until after the detention hearing.

On the other hand, if you hire a lawyer, you will have a chance to meet with that person before the hearing. This will give the attorney an opportunity to learn about the case before walking into the courtroom for the detention hearing. This, in turn, will allow the lawyer to be better prepared to explain to the judge why she should release your child.

Additionally, an attorney is better equipped to represent your child if they are involved with the case from the very beginning. Many times, things are said during an initial detention hearing that may later become relevant to the underlying case and your child’s defense. If you wait until later in the process to hire an attorney, that person may never hear that relevant information. It is much more difficult for a lawyer to come into a case that is already ongoing than it is to be involved from the beginning.

What Happens During Juvenile Detention Hearings in Tarrant County?

The detention hearing is an informal hearing. Generally speaking, the following people will be present for it: the judge, the juvenile, an intake probation officer, a prosecutor, and a defense attorney. There may also be others present, such as a therapist, victim’s assistance officer, or a CPS worker.

After the judge warns the juvenile about his rights, the probation officer will summarize the reasons why the juvenile is in detention. This may include a summary of the police report and/or any probation violations that the juvenile is alleged to have committed. The probation officer will also detail the child’s history with the juvenile system.

Then, the judge will give the juvenile, the parent, the attorneys, and anyone else involved an opportunity to speak. Under Family Code Section 54.01(g), nothing the juvenile says during the detention hearing can be used at any later hearing. The judge may also have questions for one or more of the participants. Then, the judge will make his decision.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a detention hearing is an informal method for a judge to determine whether a juvenile who has been detained should continue to be held in custody or released. Because of this purpose, the hearing is held relatively quickly after an arrest and then is repeated on a regular schedule for as long as a child is in detention. An attorney is required to represent the child at these hearings and should be retained as soon as possible.

About the Author

Christy Dunn is a writer and attorney licensed to practice in Texas. She was a prosecutor for 15 years. The last five years of her prosecutorial career was spent in the Juvenile Division of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. She has tried over 20 juvenile cases in Texas and multiple certification hearings. She was part of a multidisciplinary team that created a juvenile diversion program for youth with problematic sexual behaviors.

Juvenile Sex Offender Conditions

Strict Monitoring of Juvenile Sex Offender Internet Usage is a “Heavy Burden,” says Fifth Circuit

By | Sex Crimes

In United States v. Sealed Juvenile, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals discusses how much oversight is too much when it comes to juvenile sex offenses.

Juvenile Sex Offender ConditionsPlease note: This article discusses sexual abuse of a child. Generally speaking, the reason the court system treats juveniles differently from adults is because of the hope of rehabilitation and restoration of the juvenile offender to society. With everything from school to job searching on the internet these days, should juvenile sex offenders be able to be on the internet? Is strictly monitoring a juvenile sex offender’s internet usage, down to the keystroke, an imposition on constitutional rights, or is society providing oversight to a juvenile defendant with the hope of rehabilitation?

A Juvenile Sexual Assault Occurs on a Military Base

While living with his family on a military base, a fifteen-year-old sexually assaulted a four-year-old. He was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. §§2241(c), 5032 (2012), “engaging in a sexual act with a person who had not attained the age of 12 years.” The juvenile defendant had a history of psychiatric illnesses, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Bipolar disorder. He had a pattern of sending sexually explicit letters to classmates at school. Before sentencing the district court ordered a probation officer to render a special report, which concluded, “in the last year the juvenile’s problems transformed from being anger-oriented to being sexually-oriented.” In a plea agreement, the juvenile pleaded guilty to a lesser offense of “abusive sexual conduct with a minor who had not attained the age of 12 years,” violations of 18 U.S.C. § 2244(a)(5) (2012) and §5032.

The District Court Imposes Strict Sex Offender Conditions to Probation

The district court deemed the defendant a “juvenile delinquent” and sentenced him to eighteen months in a juvenile treatment facility and a term of juvenile delinquent supervision until he turned twenty-one. Further, the district court imposed four special conditions to his supervision

  1. a restriction on the defendant’s contact with children,
  2. choice of occupation,
  3. prohibition on loitering in specific places, and
  4. the use of computers and internet.

The juvenile appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, arguing that the district court had not provided adequate reasons for imposing the special conditions at the sentencing hearing, and failed to explain how the special conditions were reasonably related to the offense.

Under 18 U.S.C. § 3563(b), courts may place discretionary conditions on probation, so long as the conditions are reasonably related to the factors set forth in such deprivations of liberty or property and are reasonably necessary. In doing so, the sentencing court must consider the nature and circumstances of the offenses and the “history and characteristics of the defendant.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1)(2) (2012).

The Big Issue Before the Fifth Circuit | Were the Special Conditions of Probation Reasonably Related to the Offense?

The big issue before the Fifth Circuit was whether the conditions imposed by the district court were reasonably related to the offense, and if so, were they reasonably necessary. Did the district court provide adequate reasons for imposing the four special conditions? As the case was a matter of first impression, the Court examined each special condition and concluded in a surprising manner with regard to the internet and computer use.

Condition One: Restriction on Contact with Children

Under the first special condition, the juvenile was “not to have contact with children under the age of sixteen without prior written permission of the Probation Officer.” Further, he was required to “report unauthorized contact with children to the Probation Officer.” On appeal, the juvenile argued that this special condition was a “much greater deprivation of liberty…than reasonably necessary.” However, the Court disagreed with the juvenile. “Considering the threat posed by the juvenile based on his conviction [and other noted behaviors on record], we affirm this condition.” Also noting that the juvenile could attend school with permission of the Probation Officer, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the lower court.

Condition Two: Choice of Occupation

Under the second special condition, the juvenile was “restricted from engaging in an occupation where he has access to children, without prior approval of the Probation Officer.” On appeal, the juvenile argued that the special condition was not reasonable and necessary because the offense was not related to work and that he would run a risk of never being able to be employed. The Court disagreed because the juvenile would be able to work upon prior permission from his Probation Officer. The Court affirmed the district court’s condition.

Condition Three: Prohibition on Loitering in Specific Places

Under the third special condition, the juvenile was not to “loiter within one-hundred feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, arcades, or other places primarily used by children under the age of sixteen.” The juvenile argued that the special condition was not reasonably related to his offense because his offense did not occur at a school. The Court disagreed. “The juvenile’s history of sending sexually explicit letters to girls at school means that he poses a threat to children at school.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s special condition.

Condition Four: Computer and Internet Use

Under the fourth special condition, the juvenile was (1) not to possess a computer with internet access without the prior approval of the Probation Officer; (2) to submit to searches under the direction of the Probation Officer that could include software scans of his technological devices; (3) to consent to a key logger on his personal devices and to consent to a search of each internet query; (4) to inventory and to provide receipts for all devices and bills pertaining to the internet and technology.

The juvenile argued that the restrictions on his computer and internet use were not reasonably related to his offense, and that the special condition would prevent him from job searching, completing homework, and emailing his therapists. The juvenile argued that even though he could access the internet, to do so would place a heavy burden on him to request permission each time he accessed the internet, or to report any misstep such as an errant search or a “pop up” on the internet.

The Fifth Circuit points out that the juvenile is mentally ill and needs some internet oversight. “We affirm the monitoring provisions because we recognize [they] ensur[e] that the juvenile complies with the restrictions against accessing sexually explicit materials.”

However, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the juvenile on some of the internet and computer usage restrictions. “We must recognize that access to computers and the Internet is essential to functioning in today’s society.” The Fifth Circuit ordered the district court to construe the special condition so that the juvenile does not have to request permission from a Probation Officer each time he accesses the internet, removing what the Court deemed “a heavy burden” on the juvenile. Next, the Court modified the special condition that required the juvenile to provide receipts and payment records to the Probation Officer, “because the purpose is to verify that there have been no payments to an internet service provider, and payment for proper use should be made by the juvenile…there is no other basis to justify the restriction imposed by the [special condition].”

In sum, while the Fifth Circuit mostly affirmed the district court’s holding, it made some significant modifications where technology is concerned. Speaking to the hope of future rehabilitation, the Court added, “the juvenile may seek modification to any of the conditions, and the district court may lessen the burden of the [special conditions] if [his] behavior improves over time.”

Luke Williams Speaks About Ethan Couch

Possible Punishment Scenarios for Ethan Couch Once He is Apprehended

By | Juvenile

What will happen to Ethan Couch?

Luke Williams Speaks About Ethan CouchWe’ve recently been asked about fugitive Ethan Couch, the Texas teenager that was adjudicated of intoxication manslaughter, and the potential consequences for the “affluenza” teen once he’s caught. Juvenile determinate sentencing in Texas is an area of law with which most people are unfamiliar.  In this post, attorney Luke Williams explains some of the possible punishment scenarios for Ethan Couch under the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems.

Has Ethan Couch violated his probation?

Once Ethan Couch is apprehended, the State will have to prove, by a preponderance of evidence, that the teen violated a term or condition of his probation. Because juvenile records are confidential under Texas law, the public or press has not been made known of the details of Couch’s probation up to this point. But typically – at the very least – a juvenile probation in Tarrant County requires a juvenile to abstain from the use of drugs and alcohol, avoid persons or places who are using drugs and alcohol, and report regularly to the juvenile probation department.

In light of the recent Twitter video showing what purports to be Ethan Couch at a party involving alcohol and drinking games, there could potentially be evidence that he violated his probation by being amongst persons and at a place where persons are using alcohol. This could be difficult to prove. But, the more pressing problem for the teen now is his disappearance. He would undoubtedly have been required to check in with the juvenile probation department on a regular basis or when requested. At this point, as evidenced by the arrest warrant that has been activated for him, we know that he not checked in with probation as required. So, the State will likely have a much easier case to prove that he’s violated his probation by absconding.

Juvenile Probation is Discharged When the Probationer Turns 19 Unless the State Acts to Transfer

Ethan Couch’s probation term is scheduled to extend beyond his 19th birthday. However, the juvenile court will have to discharge Couch on his 19th birthday unless the court has acted earlier to transfer the probation to the appropriate criminal adult County Community Supervision and Corrections Department. This can (and likely will) be done by motion of the state prosecutor in Couch’s case. If transferred, Couch would be under the jurisdiction of the county’s adult probation department and would face adult prison time should the probation be revoked. This would be the normal course of events had Couch not absconded.

What happens once the Ethan Couch is found?

If Couch is caught before he turns 19, and if the court finds that he has violated his probation, the court can either:

  • Keep him on juvenile probation with changing anything (highly unlikely);
  • Modify his probation to add new terms and conditions and keep him on probation; or
  • Revoke his probation to commit him to the custody of Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) for a determinate sentence that “does not exceed the original sentence assessed by the court” (10 years). The court could commit the juvenile for a shorter sentence than originally assessed, but not for a longer one. See our earlier post to read more about determinate sentences.

If Couch is caught after he turns 19, we can presume that the State will have filed a motion to transfer the probation to adult supervision. If the probation is transferred to adult court, and Couch is found to have violated the probation, then the court could sentence him to serve his original sentence (up to 10 years) in the Texas Department of Corrections – Institutional Division (otherwise known as the adult penitentiary).

Again, because juvenile records are confidential under Texas law, details of Couch’s probation up to this point are unclear. So, there could be other details and/or Orders issued by the judge in Couch’s case that could change or negate the possible scenarios mentioned above.

Regardless, the fact that Couch remains missing is not a good thing for his future.

An Improper Jury Instruction Matters Not

By | Jury Trial

Texas Jury InstructionIt seems like all I write about anymore is the Court of Criminal Appeals reversing a Court of Appeals case and siding with the State. Well, this post is no different.

In Taylor v. State, the appellant was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 70 years confinement and a $10,000 fine for each offense. Much of the testimony at trial, however, related to acts appellant committed while he was a minor. The evidence showed that appellant began sexually abusing a young girl when he was 13 years old and she was 8. The abuse continued for several years, the final occurrence happening when appellant was 20 years old and the victim was 15.

Texas Penal Code Section 8.07(b) provides that unless a juvenile court waives (or has previously waived) jurisdiction and certifies an individual for criminal prosecution, “a person may not be prosecuted for or convicted of any offense committed before reaching 17 years of age.”  Accordingly, while evidence was admitted at trial regarding appellant’s acts before he turned 17, he can only be convicted of those acts that occurred after he was 17.

The trial court failed to instruct the jury of this requirement and the jury returned a guilty verdict. On appeal, appellant argued that the jury charges were erroneous because they did not limit the jury’s consideration to evidence of acts committed after he turned 17. The 1st Court of Appeals (Houston) held that the Court was required to instruct the jury that appellant could not be convicted of criminal acts committed before he turned 17, and that appellant was denied a fair and impartial trial as a result. The Court of Appeals reversed the case.

The CCA now reverses the Court of Appeals. It agrees with the Court of Appeals that the instruction should have been given to the jury, even if neither party requested the instruction. But the CCA held, nonetheless, that the error did not deprive appellant of a fair and impartial trial. The CCA states:

Here, the error was the omission of an instruction, rather than the presentation to the jury of an erroneous instruction…[T]he jury in this case could have convicted Appellant based upon evidence presented, even if the proper instruction had been given and Appellant’s pre-seventeen acts were disregarded by the jury. The evidence showed an eight-year pattern of escalating sexual abuse of J.G. by Appellant. Appellant turned 17 years old midway through the abusive period, meaning that he is subject to prosecution for his conduct beginning on that birthday…and evidence of molestation that occurred after that date was introduced at trial.

So, basically the CCA is saying – “We don’t know from the face of the record exactly which instances of abuse the jury believed, and we can’t say with 100% certainty that they believed any of the instances after appellant was 17, but we know they definitely believed something happened at some time.”

The CCA ultimately concludes that Appellant was not denied a fair and impartial trial. My question is – “How do we know that?” I realize that appellant said he didn’t commit any of the alleged acts and I also realize that the jury, by their verdict, believed that he did.  But how do we know that the jury didn’t conclude that the appellant was guilty of only those acts that occurred when he was a minor?  We don’t.