As a parent of five children, four of whom are currently teenagers, I know well the funny feeling in the stomach that every parent feels when their sons and their daughters go out on Saturday night. Teenagers, of course, stand to get into almost any kind of legal trouble but for normally good kids "trouble" usually falls into one of the big three categories: drugs, sex, and cars. This article will hopefully settle some parental anxiety but it will also point out the areas where seemingly small transgressions can easily become huge legal problems for a teen.
For most purposes, any teenager who has attained the age of seventeen years who commits a crime will be charged immediately in adult court- and they will face the adult penalties. Children of lower ages may be "waived" into adult court depending upon the nature of the offense, the age of the child, and the child's record. The bottom line is that we, as a community, have decided to "eat our young" with adult criminal penalties rather than to shelter them from their youthful indiscretions. Teenage behavior that in years past might have been shrugged off as "boys being boys" is now considered to be criminal behavior.
Of the "big three" this is probably the biggest because it affects the greatest number of young people. Of the kids who wind up in legal trouble because of drugs it is usually alcohol and marijuana. It is so obvious that possessing or selling heroin, crack, cocaine, LSD, or ecstasy is such a serious legal matter that it is truly beyond the scope of this article. If you are caught with these drugs you will most-likely find yourself obtaining your GED in prison.
In Wisconsin it is against the law for a person who has not attained the age of twenty-one years to consume alcoholic beverages except in the immediate presence of a parent or guardian. In other words, it is legal for a parent or a guardian to allow a child who is not yet twenty-one years old to consume alcohol- as long as the drinking is in the immediate presence of the parent. Teens- When you are not in the presence of your parent or guardian you may not possess or consume alcoholic beverages.
As a practical matter, if a police officer finds a teenager in public with alcohol on his or her breath, even though no alcoholic beverages present, there is going to be a problem. This is primarily because many officers do not understand that it is legal for a teenager to drink alcohol in the presence of their parents. The more experienced officers, though, will first question the teen about where he was when he consumed the alcohol. If the answer is anything other than "at home with my parents" a ticket is going to be issued.
The penalty for under-aged consumption or possession of alcohol is a forfeiture of money and/or a suspension of driver's license. Repeat offenders will certainly lose their driver's licenses.
It is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail, for a person to possess marijuana. One may be found to have "possessed" marijuana even if the officer does not find it in one's pocket. At least once per week I have a client complain to me that they should not be charged with possession of marijuana because the cop found the weed under the passenger seat and "I was sitting behind the driver in the back." Under the law a person "possesses" all items that are known to them to be present in an area that is under the person's "dominion and control"- that is, in an area where the person could go get the item if one so desired. So the fact that is was "dude's weed" and he threw it under the seat is not much of a defense.
It is a felony to deliver marijuana to another person. The law does not require there to be a "sale" in order to charge a felony. All that is required is that the defendant transferred possession of the marijuana from themselves to another person. Therefore, one commits a felony by simply passing the bowl to a friend. Such behavior is not usually charged as a felony; however, the point is that it could be charged as a felony by a zealous prosecutor.
You may have heard of persons getting a "ticket" for possessing marijuana. Most municipalities have ordinances prohibiting the possession marijuana. One cannot be put in jail for a municipal ordinance violation. If a small amount of marijuana is found and if the defendant has no prior record the officer may decide to issue a ticket rather than to refer the matter to the district attorney for criminal charges. You do not have a right, though, to be given a ticket. This is in the officer's discretion. Therefore, if you find yourself in this situation it will normally be to your advantage to be as courteous and as cooperative with the officer as you can.
There are two significant consequences of being convicted of a "state charge" of marijuana possession os opposed to a municipal ordinance violation. Firstly, a municipal ordinance violation for possession will not disqualify you for federal financial aid for college whereas a state charge will disqualify you. Secondly, a second state conviction for possession of marijuana is a felony. However, a municipal ordinance violation for possession of marijuana does not count as a first offense.
It is remarkable how few parents understand the truly life-shattering consequences of teen sexual behavior. It is a fairly common occurrence for a sixteen year-old sophomore boy to be dating a freshman girl who may be as young as fourteen. This is an absolute legal mine-field for the boy and his parents. Whether it seems fair or not, the truth of the matter is that in the case of teenagers having sexual intercourse or sexual contact it is the boy who will be charged and the girl who will be considered the "victim". The penalties for a boy having sexual contact with a fourteen year-old girl can ruin a young man's life permanently. Most children charged with this sort of offense are waived into adult court.
First, you must understand, the statutory definitions of "sexual intercourse" and "sexual contact" includes activity beyond the normal meanings of the phrases. It includes almost any intentional touching of another's sex organ for the purpose of sexual gratification. What parents called "petting" in their day can very easily be a serious felony in this day.
Under Sec. 948.02(2), Stats., (second degree sexual assault) any person who has sexual intercourse or sexual contact with a person who has not attained the age of sixteen years is guilty of a Class C felony. The maximum penalty for such a crime is a fine not to exceed $100,000 or imprisonment not to exceed 40 years. This is an offense that will put the boy on the sex offender registry for life.
Even when the girl turns sixteen there are still problems. Sec. 948.09, Wis. Stats., makes it a Class A misdemeanor to have sexual intercourse with a person who has attained the age of sixteen years but who has not attained the age eighteen years. The penalty for a Class A misdemeanor is up to nine months in jail and/or a $10,000 fine.
When I represent a young man who is charged with sexual assault involving his teenage girlfriend I am frequently astounded to learn that both sets of parents had every reason to believe that the sexual behavior was occurring and did nothing to stop it- sometimes they even gave tacit approval to it by allowing the couple to be alone in the bedroom with the door closed.
It is absolutely critical that parents talk to their teens about the legal problems that sex between teenagers will cause. This, of this, of course, is not to mention the family problems of pregnancy, paternity actions, and child support.
Parents may not be able to keep their kids away from every party but they should make every effort to avoid putting their son or their daughter into a situation where he or she could easily face a serious felony charge. Allowing a teen to have his or her own car, to used at any time, is a recipe for disaster.
Lawyers in my line of work joke that they will never let their teenagers drive with friends. We know that there could be a car-load of young people, all of whom went to the same party, all whom drank the same amount of beer, and all whom chanted for the driver to "go a hundred miles an hour." But when that car hits the tree killing or injuring the occupants it will be the driver who is charged with a felony and sent to prison while the passengers are all wrapped in the cloak of victim-hood. There are no teenage car accidents anymore. There are homicides and recklessly causing injury charges. There are prison sentences and lawsuits.
Additionally, it is a fact that the police would be unable to make approximately one-third of the arrests they currently make if it were not for cars. Ted Bundy managed to murder two dozen women without being caught- until he got pulled over in his car. The police may pull over an automobile on a public roadway for almost any reason. If it is a slow night, any cop will tell you that all they need to do is to find a car-load of teenagers and pull them over. It will usually yield some under-aged drinking tickets and a bag of pot or two.
Finally, Wisconsin has an "absolute sobriety" law for teenagers. If you are not old enough to drink you may not drive a motor vehicle with any amount of alcohol in your system. This even includes any alcohol consumed in the presence of your parents. The moral of story is for teenagers to walkto where they are going (and I fully realize that this is advice that will be accepted by exactly no one).
__________________________________ Schiro & Zarzynski Personal Injury Attorneys Milwaukee, WI 53203 414.224.0825
"The bully lawyer" _____________________________
Milwaukee criminal defense attorney Jeffrey W. Jensen, of the Law Offices of Jeffrey W. Jensen, a Milwaukee law firm with offices located at 111 E. Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1925, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has represented persons throughout the State of Wisconsin. If you will face felony charges in either state court or in federal court you should call 414.671.9484. Attorney Jensen regularly appears in Milwaukee County (Milwaukee criminal defense lawyer), Waukesha County (Waukesha criminal defense lawyer, Brookfield criminal defense lawyer), Washington County (West Bend and Germantown criminal defense lawyer), Racine County (Racine criminal defense lawyer), Kenosha County (Kenosha criminal defense lawyer), Brown County (Green Bay criminal defense lawyer), Fond du Lac County (Fond du Lac criminal defense lawyer), and Winnebago County (Oshkosh criminal defense lawyer)
The material on this site is a product of the Law Offices of Jeffrey W. Jensen. Unless otherwise noted it may be used for any legal purpose with attribution.