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Do Under-18 Juveniles Need a Fort Lauderdale Defense Lawyer?

While it’s true that Florida courts treat juvenile offenses differently than adult crimes, no one should presume that a child’s under-18 status means they’ll automatically be handled with “kid gloves.”

Penalties for juveniles - whether in juvenile court or in adult court - can be quite serious. As such, it’s to their benefit to have a Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer representing them.

In fact, parents or guardians may be compelled by the court to pay for a juvenile defense lawyer if they are financially able.

Your Right to an Attorney in Florida Juvenile Court

Just as it is with adults in the adult criminal justice system, juvenile offenders (referred to in delinquent hearings as “respondents” rather than “defendants”) may have a public defender appointed to them. The constitutional right to counsel spelled out in the Sixth Amendment is extended to children at all stages of any delinquency court proceeding, as noted in F.S. 985.033(1).

Public defenders can be appointed if the child and their parent/legal guardian are deemed indigent and unable to afford an attorney. This attorney can provide legal advice/counsel to the child at any time after arrest - including prior to a detention hearing and while in secure detention care. If a child appears in court without a lawyer, the court must advise the child of his/her right to court-appointed counsel.

If the parents are not indigent but refuse to hire a lawyer, the court “shall appoint counsel” at the detention hearing. However, after that, non-indigent parents/guardians can be ordered by the court to obtain legal private counsel. If a parent doesn’t comply with this court order, they can be penalized by the court in civil contempt hearings. If a parent continues to flout the court’s order, they can be faced with a host of court fees and fines.

A child may waive the right to counsel, but only if/when the child has had a “meaningful” chance to consult with an attorney regarding their rights (including the right to counsel), and informed of consequences to waiving this right. The juvenile court must then conduct an inquiry to make sure the child understands what it means to waive this right, and then they must do so in writing.

If, however, a child is transferred to the adult justice system for criminal prosecution the parent is only liable for the necessary legal fees up to the point of that transfer. Kids’ cases can be moved to adult court via prosecutor direct file (the most common way), grand jury indictment, or a waiver hearing. Most teens tried as adults are 16 or 17, but younger kids can be sent too if the charges are serious enough.

Why It’s Important for Kids to Have Legal Counsel

Kids are not “mini-adults.” They are fundamentally developmentally different from adults. The very existence of a separate juvenile court is an acknowledgement of that. They lack maturity, have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are susceptible to negative influences, and are vulnerable to peer pressure. They’re more impulsive, unable cognitively to fully consider all options in the situation or fully anticipate the consequences. What’s more, their actual maturity level may be less than what their age would seemingly indicate - particularly if they have a mental disability or illness.

These facts are the basis for a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions outlining a different approach to juvenile punishment. Rulings in Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama, all affirm the fact that juveniles don’t have the same capacity to fully wrap their heads around their actions, and thus, they are entitled to less severe punishments compared to adults. But “less severe than an adult” does not mean it won’t be serious or free of a lasting negative impact on their lives.

As Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers, we do understand the inclination of some parents to avoid providing any sort of “help” for a child who has made poor choices. The hope is that by facing the consequences on their own, they’ll better “learn the lesson.”

However, a hands-off approach here can be problematic for a few reasons. Among those:
  • You as the parent/guardian may be required to hire a lawyer by the court. This is true whether you like it or not. (See above.)
  • Kids tend to place a higher emphasis on “fairness” than adults. This might seem like a good thing. However, in a criminal or delinquency case, this feeling may compel a child or teen to want to make sure their side is heard. This can lead to them saying things that can result in even more trouble for them. A juvenile defense lawyer can help explain why staying silent and allowing their attorney to tell their side for them is to their benefit.
  • Youth are susceptible to making decisions to please others. That doesn’t always mean it’s in their best interests. If they think their parents or the court want them to enter a no contest or guilty plea, they may be inclined to impulsively do so - without carefully considering the consequences. An attorney can counsel them on all the possible outcomes for that decision - including collateral consequences. This ensures they fully understand what such a plea entails, as well as what other options are realistically available to them.
  • The consequences in juvenile court can be substantial and long-lasting. There’s more than one way to learn a lesson, and it doesn’t necessarily require the harshest possible outcome. In fact, sometimes the highest penalties can put your child within the circle of influence of individuals who may be harder, more obstinate, less empathetic, more institutionalized. On the other hand, diversion programs  - for which a juvenile defense lawyer can advocate - can serve to teach the lesson while offering them ample opportunities for rehabilitation. It can also mean a chance at a clean record if they complete the program successfully.

Bottom line: Juveniles are best protected - and may learn the most from the experience - if they have a defense lawyer advocating for what is best for them.

If you have been arrested in South Florida, call The Ansara Law Firm in Fort Lauderdale today for your free initial consultation at (954) 761-4011.

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