When a minor commits an offense in California, the crime is not treated the same way as adults. The juvenile courts handle and adjudicate delinquency matters involving minors. However, a minor may face the conventional criminal proceedings in an adult court depending on the seriousness of the crime they commit. The California law prohibits the conviction of minors below 14 years in an adult court. In some circumstances, minors who are at least 14 years may face prosecution in an adult court. If your child is facing prosecution for criminal activity, Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm can help you create a defense whether the minor is tried in the juvenile or adult court.

The Juvenile Justice Initiative

California voters approved Proposition 21 in March 2000. This voters' initiative responded to the media reports revolving around criminal gang activities committed by teenagers below 18 years. According to the Juvenile Justice Initiative, the prosecutor has the discretion to decide whether a minor who is at least 14 years old should be tried in an adult court.

California law specifies several crimes for which a minor may be tried as an adult. A minor is likely to face adult criminal charges for committing murder. Sex offenses where the juvenile personally commits the crime could also lead to prosecution in a criminal court.

A Fitness Hearing

A fitness hearing is also known as a transfer hearing. It is a legal proceeding in the juvenile court where the judge decides whether the minor should face criminal conviction in adult court instead of the juvenile court. The minor remains in the juvenile court if the judge concludes that the juvenile fits the juvenile system. If the judge concludes that the juvenile is not fit for the juvenile system, he or she is transferred to the adult court. For most crimes, minors are handled within the California juvenile justice system. However, when a crime is severe, the adult court system takes over.

The prosecutor may want to charge a juvenile as an adult. Whether the juvenile remains in the juvenile court or not depends on what the judge decides during the transfer hearing. Facing prosecution in an adult criminal court has severe consequences. The juvenile faces the likelihood of an extended sentence in the adult court with adult offenders.

The judge will consider several factors to determine whether the minor should remain in the juvenile justice system. For the juvenile to stay in the juvenile justice system, the prosecution must convince the judge that the minor will gain from the rehabilitation services offered under the juvenile justice system. The minor faces prosecution in the adult court if it is evident that they will not gain from the juvenile justice system.

The prosecutor initiates the transfer hearing. The prosecutor may initiate the hearing if the minor is at least 16 years and has committed a felony or crime listed under W&I Code 707(b). The prosecutor may also initiate the transfer hearing if the minor was 14 or 15 years when he or she committed the crime specified under W&I Code 707(b). The minor did not face apprehension until he or she attained 18 years.

Usually, the transfer hearing occurs between the adjudication hearing and the detention hearing. The law requires the prosecutor to give the minor five court days' notice of the hearing. The judge considers several factors when determining whether to send the minor to the adult court:

  • The criminal sophistication the minor exhibits

  • Whether it is possible to rehabilitate and transform the minor before juvenile court's jurisdiction expiration

  • The juvenile offender's previous delinquency history

  • The success of the last attempts to rehabilitate and transform the minor under the juvenile court system

  • The gravity of the circumstances of the offense that the minor committed

Crimes for Which a Minor May Be Tried in an Adult Court

According to the California W&I Code Sec 707, the D.A. may commence the transfer hearing when a juvenile violates one of the following offenses outlined under the W&I Code Sec 707(b). If the suspect was 14 or 15 years old when they committed the alleged crime, they could be transferred to the adult court unless the minor was 18 years at the time of the arrest. The California W&I Code 707(b) outlines the following offenses:

  • Arson of an occupied structure or arson causing significant bodily injury

  • Murder

  • Robbery

  • Sodomy by violence, force, or a threat of significant bodily injury

  • Rape by violence, force, or threat of substantial physical injury

  • A lascivious or lewd act with a child below 14 years using violence, force, or threat of significant bodily injury

  • Oral copulation using violence, force, or threat of significant physical injury

  • Kidnapping for ransom

  • Forcible sexual penetration

  • Kidnapping with bodily harm

  • Kidnapping with the intent of robbery

  • Assault with a destructive device or firearm

  • Attempted murder

  • Discharging a firearm into an occupied or an inhabited building

  • Committing a felony offense whereby the juvenile offender personally used a weapon that is listed under PC 16590(a)

  • If the minor commits a crime outlined under PC 1203.09 against a disabled person or a person who is over 60 years.

  • Commission of a felony described under PC 136.1 dissuasion of a witness or bribing a witness outlined under PC 137.

  • A violent felony, qualifying as a felony violation of PC 186.22(b) criminal street gang sentencing enhancement.

  • Compounding, manufacturing, or selling ½ ounce and above of salt or a solution containing a controlled substance described under Health & Safety Code 11055(e)

  • Escaping from a county juvenile hall, ranch, home, or camp using force or violence and intentionally inflicting significant bodily injury on a juvenile facility employee

  • Carjacking

  • Aggravated mayhem

  • Torture

  • Drive-by shooting outlined under PC 26100

  • Kidnapping during carjacking

  • Kidnapping with the intent of a sexual assault

  • Voluntary manslaughter

  • Exploding a harmful device with the intent of committing murder

Offenses that Automatically Trigger Prosecution of a Minor in an Adult Court under W&I 602 (b)

According to California law Welfare & Institutions Code Sec 602 (b), certain crimes committed by minors who are at least 14 years old are automatically tried in an adult court. The crimes are:

  1. Murder — U nder exceptional circumstances where the prosecutors allege that the minor personally killed the victim

  2. Sexual offenses — W hereby the prosecutor alleges that the minor personally committed the sexual crime and there is the presence of aggravating circumstances

  • Rape with violence, force, or a threat of great bodily harm under PC 261(a)(2)

  • Spousal rape with violence, force, or a threat of significant bodily injury as outlined under PC 262(a)(1)

  • Forcible sexual penetration in concert with another person as outlined under PC 264.1

  • Lascivious or lewd acts with a minor under 14 years involving violence, force, or threat of significant bodily injury as outlined under PC 288(b)

  • Forcible sexual penetration outlined under PC 289(a)

  • Sodomy or the crime of oral copulation (PC 286, 288a) by violence, force, or threat of significant bodily injury

  • Lascivious or lewd acts with a child below 14 years (P.C. 288a) unless the minor offender qualifies for probation under California PC 1203.066

Appealing the Court's Decision

The minor will face trial under the adult court system if they lose at the transfer hearing. Under the adult court, the minor will face trial according to the rules that apply to adults. A juvenile can challenge the transfer to the adult court by filing a written petition. The minor should file the petition within 20 days from the initial arraignment on factors that led to a transfer to the adult court. If your child faces charges for a crime that involves a firearm, it is crucial to contact an attorney who understands California's juvenile law.

Using a gun/ firearm while committing a felony elevates the crime to a Sec 707(b) crime. As long as a minor has committed a Sec 707 (b) crime, the prosecutor must file charges against the juvenile in the adult court or commence a transfer hearing and request the judge to help decide the issue.

During the transfer hearing, the minor should prove through a preponderance of the evidence that they belong in the juvenile justice system. If the minor fails to prove this, the minor will proceed to adult court and receive adult prosecution. You should hire an attorney on time to give him or her ample time to file a petition to prevent the transfer of the minor to the adult court.

Whether Minors Can Receive a Death Penalty

A minor is not eligible to receive a death penalty under California law. This is according to a ruling that the Supreme Court made in 2005 in the case of Roper v Simmons . According to the ruling, the court maintained that such penalties for minors are unusual and cruel and violate the Eighth Amendment provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

The Enactment of Senate Bill 1391

The California Senate Bill 1391 came into effect in September 2018. According to this Bill, the District Attorney can file a motion to transfer a juvenile offender from the juvenile delinquency system to the conventional criminal court if the juvenile is 16 years and above. Senate Bill 1391 does not support the prosecution of minors below 16 years in an adult court unless the crime committed by the minor was discovered after the juvenile attained 18 years. The Senate Bill replaced Proposition 21. Prop 21 allowed the prosecutor to decide whether a juvenile 14 years and above should be tried as an adult in the adult criminal court through a transfer hearing.

According to the provisions of Senate Bill 1391, a judge can transfer a minor into the adult criminal court after determining the following:

  • The child has attained 16 years.

  • The child committed a crime while below 16 years but was only arrested after turning 18 years.

  • There are sufficient reasons for the transfer of the minor into the adult court.

The judge will consider other aspects, including the minor's maturity, emotional wellbeing, and mental health. The judge also considers the minor's past criminal history. In some instances, a minor might have been tried as an adult before. If the minor commits a subsequent offense, they will still be tried in the adult court. Unless the juvenile court is not appropriate for the minor's rehabilitation, Senate Bill 1391 strictly prohibits the trial of minors below 16 years in the juvenile court.

After a Transfer to the Adult Criminal Court

The adult criminal court system is entirely different from the juvenile justice system in California. What should you expect when your child is transferred to the adult court? What does the adult criminal court process system in California entail?

The Arraignment

After an arrest for a criminal offense, the first formal court hearing is the arraignment. During the arraignment, the minor will have the opportunity to enter a plea for the alleged crime. The typical pleas at the arraignment are not guilty, guilt, and no contest, also known as nolo contendere. If the minor enters the no contest or the guilty plea, they will go directly to the sentencing hearing. If the minor enters the not guilty plea, which is the most typical at this stage, the judge will address the issue of bail.

Under the adult court system, the defendant must post bail to get out of custody. The purpose of bail is to ensure the defendant will show up for all the court appearances. The bail amount is dependent on the local county bail schedule. While determining the bail amount, the defendant, together with their attorney, will have the opportunity to present several mitigating factors to support their request to reduce or eliminate the set bail. The judge will consider several factors while setting the bail amount, including:

  • The defendant's criminal history

  • The severity of the crime

  • The facts of the case

  • The likelihood of the defendant to show up in court

  • Whether the defendant will pose a risk to public safety

In some instances, the judge is likely to waive the bail and release the defendant on their own recognizance. However, this is highly unlikely if the minor has committed a violent felony offense.

Pretrial Process

The minor enters the pretrial process after entering the not guilty plea and when the issue of bail is resolved. The majority of offenses in California are resolved during the pretrial process. This phase includes all the legal proceedings that occur before the trial. These legal proceedings include:

  • Appearing in court

  • Filing the relevant motions

  • Discovery issues and exchange of the relevant evidence

  • Negotiations and plea bargains

For a felony crime, the preliminary hearing is one of the first hearings. It is also known as the probable cause or the prelim hearing. The purpose of this hearing is to ensure that a defendant does not answer to a crime for which there is no ample evidence. Before resolving a criminal issue, the judge must ensure probable cause that the defendant committed the crime. The judge will only transfer the defendant to the trial court for further pretrial proceedings after ascertaining that the defendant indeed committed the said crime.

With the help of their attorney, a minor may file a motion to set aside the information as outlined under PC 995 if they feel that the judge held them to answer the charges incorrectly. A motion to set aside the information requests the judge to dismiss one or more charges against the defendant. The trial judge will only grant the 995 motion if they feel that the pretrial judge was incorrect in finding the probable cause.

The defendant may file a California Pitchess motion with the help of their attorney if they feel that they are victims of police misconduct. A Pitchess motion seeks permission to access information in the officer's file on bias, excessive force, or other forms of police misconduct. If you identify such evidence, the prosecutor may be willing to reduce or even dismiss the charges against you.

The minor may also file a motion to suppress evidence if the police violated his or her fourth amendment rights. The motion to suppress evidence seeks to request the judge to exclude any evidence acquired illegally. If your attorney prevails in filing the evidence to suppress the motion, it could lead to the reduction or dismissal of the charges against you.

Jury Trial

If the case does not resolve during the pretrial proceedings, the case will proceed to a jury trial. California trials fall under two categories: jury trials and bench trials. A jury trial consists of twelve members who listen to the evidence against the defendant and the defense and then decide whether the defendant is guilty or not. A bench trial is also known as a court trial. It consists of a judge who acts as both the judge and the jury.

A Motion for New Trial

The defendant may file a new trial motion if they feel that their verdict was tainted by an error of the law by the court, jury misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, insufficient evidence, or if new evidence emerges. The defendant may file the motion on the outline grounds as long as they file the motion before the judge pronounces the final judgment at the sentencing hearing. If the court grants the motion for a new trial, the defendant begins a new trial as if the previous trial did not take place.

Sentencing Hearing

The sentencing hearing is the final hearing at the adult criminal court system. During the sentencing hearing, both the prosecutor and the defendant, with their attorney, will have the opportunity to explain to the judge what they deem an appropriate sentence. The minor's attorney may present certain mitigating circumstances to negotiate for lenient treatment. On the other hand, the prosecutor may present aggravating circumstances to warrant harsh treatment for the defendant.

It is crucial to ensure that you have skilled legal representation on your side throughout the California criminal court process. An experienced attorney knows the most compelling arguments that they can use to persuade the judge to impose the least restrictive penalties.

Benefits of Having a Minor Tried as an Adult

A minor might end up in the adult criminal court even when their attorney does everything possible to prevent this from happening. You might feel like all is lost when the judge decides to transfer a minor to the adult court. However, you would be surprised to learn that there are several merits of having a juvenile tried as an adult:

  • Your child will have the right to a jury trial when tried in an adult court, yet this is not available under the juvenile delinquency system. In an adult court, the minor's case will be based on merit.

  • The transfer to an adult court might favor the minor because the jury may sympathize with the juvenile due to their young age.

  • If he or she is tried as an adult, the minor might end up with a lighter sentence than when tried in juvenile court. However, it is essential to note that juvenile court dispositions are often less severe than adult courts.

The Disadvantage of Facing Trial in an Adult Court

There are several disadvantages of a minor facing trial in an adult court:

  • The minor might end up with a harsher penalty — T he penalties imposed by the adult court vary depending on the severity of the crime. The potential penalties in adult courts include hefty fines, jail time, imprisonment, and probation. In the juvenile justice system, the juvenile court aims at rehabilitating the minor and not punishing them. Therefore, most punishments imposed by the juvenile court are less severe than those set by the adult court.

  • The counseling programs and treatment available in the juvenile courts is not available in the adult court system.

  • If the child undergoes trial in the adult courts and gets a conviction, the record will severely affect many areas of their lives. Most juvenile convictions are erased after completing the imposed program, which means that they do not affect the minor when the minor turns 18.

Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

If your child faces criminal charges in Orange County, CA, the child might end up in adult criminal court. Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm can fight on your behalf and negotiate with the judge to retain the child in the juvenile system. Contact us at 714-740-7848 and speak to one of our attorneys.