(California Welfare and Institutions Code sections 601, 601, 654, 707(b), 790, et seq.)
Juvenile defense is unlike any other sub-practice of criminal law, and requires highly specialized knowledge of both procedural and substantive law. In fact, it so distinct from adult criminal law that a lawyer who takes on a juvenile case without significant prior experience may very well find him/herself subject not only to a malpractice lawsuit, but possibly a State Bar ethics complaint and investigation, as well.
Ninaz Saffari gained this invaluable experience by working for two years practicing juvenile defense while employed as a Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender at the Compton, Inglewood, and Los Padrinos (Sylmar) courthouses. During that period, she defended hundreds of minors for crimes ranging from petty theft and vandalism to serious gang-related violent offenses, as well as sex crimes such as gang rape. She has also conducted more than twenty juvenile “trials” (see below). You would be hard pressed to find any high-profile LA attorney who can match this experience.
Not surprisingly then, many private attorneys quickly find themselves out of their depth when handling a juvenile case for the first time. Ninaz has been approached more than once by such defense lawyers in juvenile court to ask her what they’re supposed to do. These inexperienced counsel were even bewildered by the different terminology used in juvenile court. For instance, instead of the prosecutor filing a criminal “complaint” in adult court, the DA’s Office files a “petition”. Similarly, a prior juvenile criminal conviction is referred to as a “sustained petition”. In fact, juvenile laws are governed by a completely separate criminal code – instead of the Penal Code, the Welfare Institutions Code codifies these laws.
Juvenile cases are never tried before a jury, and always decided solely by the presiding judge. So instead of trials, these proceedings are known as “adjudications”. In addition, juvenile defendants are afforded a different set of civil rights than adults. Even some of the rules of evidence differ from those in adult criminal cases.
A juvenile can be convicted of any of the three categories of crimes: felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions (which can never result in jail time, and typically only requires the defendant to pay a relatively small fine, such as for moving automobile violations).
Juvenile Strike Offenses
One thing that doesn’t differ from adult cases is the fact that certain serious violent crimes, such as murder and forcible rape, will be prosecuted as strike offenses under the state’s “Three Strikes” law (Penal Code section 667), which mandates that a convicted prisoner serve a minimum of eighty-five percent of his or her sentence. Thus, unlike non-strike offenses, your sentence won’t be significantly shortened with good behavior. For juveniles, strike offenses are known as “707(b) offenses” (under California’s Welfare Inst. Code section 707(b)).
Occasionally, and particularly for strike offenses, juveniles may be prosecuted as adults if the judge so determines following a “fitness hearing” (i.e., where the minor is found to be fit to be tried as such). If tried and convicted as an adult, a juvenile defendant will likely serve time in a maximum security juvenile facility under the California Youth Authority system (CYA) until age twenty-five. At that point, the juvenile could then be transferred to an adult prison to serve out the remainder of his or her sentence (if applicable).
Senate Bill 1391 Cases – Juveniles Tried as Adults
In November 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, which required prosecutors to seek judicial approval to try a minor under age sixteen as an adult. On September 30, 2018, the Governor of California signed into law Senate Bill 1391, which prohibits juveniles under sixteen years of age from being tried as adults. This new law went into effect on January 1, 2020. Prior to SB 1391, if a juvenile was arrested for a serious crime, the DA’s Office could have prosecuted him or her either as a juvenile or an adult. However, on November 26, 2018, the California Supreme Court agreed to review whether the state legislature had exceeded its legal authority to pass this legislation.
Juveniles who are being prosecuted in adult court are known as “criminal offenders”, as well as “juveniles remanded to superior court”. Minors who are prosecuted as juveniles are known as “informal probationers”, as well as “status offenders”.
Juveniles age eleven and younger who are adjudicated (convicted) of crimes are rarely detained (jailed), but in unusual cases, a CYA director conducts a review of the case and determines whether he or she should remain at home (and under the supervision of a probation officer) or at a facility, ranch, or camp.
Informal Probationers (Welf. & Inst. Code section 654)
These are juveniles who have been charged or convicted of relatively minor (juvenile) crimes, and who are, therefore, eligible for informal probation – also known as “654 probation”, and informal probationers are also called “654’s”.
Status Offenders (Welf. & Inst. Code section 601)
Juveniles who have committed strictly-juvenile-only crimes (i.e., crimes for which an adult could never be charged), such as breaking curfew or habitually ditching school (truancy). “601’s”, as they’re also known, cannot be housed with more serious criminals (“criminal offenders”). Status offenders can be placed on either formal or informal probation.
Criminal Offenders (Welf. & Inst. Code section 602)
A criminal offender is a juvenile who allegedly commits any felony or misdemeanor crime. “602’s”, if convicted of a sufficiently serious crime, or are awaiting adjudication (trial) on a sufficiently serious offense, can be incarcerated (“detained”) in any juvenile county facility, including ranches, camps, and CYA.
Juveniles Remanded to Superior Court (Welf. & Inst. Code section 707(b))
Also known as “707(b)’s” and “remands”, these are individuals who, following a fitness hearing, have been adjudicated by the juvenile court to be unfit to be tried as juveniles, and so therefore will be tried in adult court. Only the most serious violent and sexual crimes invoke this W.I.C. section, which includes more than thirty such crimes for minors who are at least sixteen years old.
How the Juvenile Criminal Process Works
Once a juvenile is actually arrested (as opposed to being merely cited or warned by a law enforcement officer), a probation officer determines whether to let him or her go home, or whether he or she should be detained pending adjudication. Similarly, a police officer or sheriff’s deputy has the power to decide whether the juvenile is released to his or her parents or guardians, or if he or she will be transferred to juvenile hall. Juvenile hall, on the other hand, which is operated by the LA County Department of Probation, will typically accept only violent and sexual offenders.
At that point, a probation officer or Deputy DA will decide whether to file a petition (similar to a criminal complaint in adult court) that commences the criminal proceedings against the juvenile.
Once a juvenile’s petition is sustained (i.e., he or she is convicted), the probation officer retains supervision over him or her, except in those cases where he or she is “remanded” to a CYA facility (at which time the CDC assumes responsibility).
Sealing and Unsealing a Juvenile Criminal Record (W.I.C. section 781)
Inexperienced or incompetent attorneys would also find the process of sealing a client’s juvenile criminal record to be complicated. Contrary to public opinion, a juvenile’s record is not automatically sealed when he or she turns eighteen. Instead, you must file a motion and have it approved by a judge – to not only seal the records, but to have them permanently destroyed. Only in rare circumstances will the court retain a copy.
Even then, however, you must understand whether you are even eligible for a Section 781 disposition. Those who have been convicted of committing particularly serious crimes involving violence or sex offenses, for example, are not eligibile for Section 781 relief. Also, while an adult, you cannot have been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude – regardless of whether the crime was a misdemeanor or felony. Such a crime typically involves dishonesty (such as theft or fraud crimes) or other acts that are considered shocking to the general public, such as sex crimes or drug trafficking.
If the motion is approved, you can then truthfully and legally reply that you’ve never had a criminal record, and lawfully deny that you’ve ever even been arrested in response to any employment or licensing application.
Types of Misdemeanor Juvenile Offenses
– In late July 2018, a seventeen-year-old boy was arrested in Palo Alto for allegedly trying to burglarize a residence in the middle of the night. Palo Alto PD claimed that an elderly man and his wife were awaken by noise in their second-floor bedroom and saw the boy, who was wearing a mask. The couple allegedly told investigators that the boy had asked if he could use their WiFi. After the husband refused, the husband allegedly jumped up and grappled the boy, pushing him out of the bedroom, across the hallway, down the stairs, and out the front door. The husband then dialed Nine-One-One, and the boy was arrested minutes later in the same vicinity as the residence. According to PAPD, the boy was also a suspect in an identical incident the night before in a home near the subject residence. In that incident, police claimed the boy told the homeowner that he need to use his WiFi because his own was out of data. After that homeowner refused to give out the password for his WiFi, the boy allegedly fled. As a result, the boy was charged with two felonies for first-degree residential burglary and one misdemeanor for prowling.
– In late January 2019, according to the Ventura PD (Ventura County), locals Terrell Vaughn (eighteen) and his seventeen-year-old male accomplice went on a paintball-gun shooting spree, hitting numerous victims from a moving vehicle throughout the city. (Fortunately, none of the victims suffered serious injury.) One of the victims – who believed he had been shot from behind with a real gun – called Nine-One-One as he followed the suspects’ vehicle in his own car. While following them, he was allegedly able to give the VPD dispatcher the suspects’ license-plate number. Although the victim gave up the chase minutes later, police were quickly able to trace the owner of the vehicle, Vaughn, through DMV records, and arrested both suspects later that same night. Vaughn was charged with numerous felonies, including conspiracy charges, while his alleged accomplice was merely cited for various misdemeanors and released into the custody of his mother and father.
– In mid-February 2018, LAPD alleged that a seventeen-year-old boy in Woodland Hills made a false police report by calling Nine-One-One and reporting that three African-American men were attempting to burglarize his apartment and had fired a gun through his apartment’s front door from outside. Police responded with numerous patrol cars and even a helicopter, but found no would-be burglars in the vicinity. Even more suspicious, although there was indeed a bullet hole in the front door, police allegedly found that the gunshot had come from inside the apartment. As a result, several days later, police executed a search warrant and allegedly found a small amount of marijuana inside the house, as well as a semi-automatic handgun in the bushes below the apartment. The boy was then arrested and transferred to the juvenile jail facility in Sylmar, after which he was charged with numerous misdemeanors, including illegal firing of a pistol, making a false report, and possession of marijuana (which is still illegal in California for anyone 20 years old or younger).
Types of Felony Juvenile Offenses
– In late December 2019, two seventeen-year-old boys pled guilty in juvenile court to accidentally killing a local college professor in San Marino (LA County) after illegal street-racing each other the previous Fourth of July. The professor (Gabriel Crispo) had been jogging nearby at the time, apparently unaware of what was transpiring, when the two cars collided then struck the median, killing both the victim and his dog. The boys admitted that they remained behind at the scene but failed to render immediate assistance to the victim. Video footage from a nearby business had captured the incident. The specific plea involved both boys admitting to a felony charge of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. Their sentences consisted of thirty and ninety days’ probation, respectively, as well as volunteer work to be performed at the county morgue. The boys were also required to write an apology letter to the victim’s family, and temporarily lost their right to drive a vehicle. Finally, the judge imposed nightly curfews on them and issued an order allowing police and probation officers to search the boys’ persons and residences at any time without prior notice. If convicted at a juvenile adjudication, each boy would have faced as much as eleven years in a juvenile prison facility (CYA). This means that when each turned twenty-five, after serving eight years in CYA, they would be transferred to an adult prison facility to serve out the remainder of their sentence. This would likely amount to three years, not counting any time that would have been shaved off for good behavior, but also not accounting for the fact that this conviction would likely have constituted a strike offense and therefore would have required them to serve at least eighty-five percent of their sentences with good behavior.
– In mid-December 2019, a seventeen-year-old Oakland girl was arrested for allegedly participating in the unarmed robbery of a laptop from a fellow BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) passenger. The girl’s two alleged male accomplices fled before they could be arrested, and the laptop was not recovered. According to Oakland PD, the victim had been seated in a train car working on his Apple computer when one of the male accomplices grabbed it from him, ran out of the train car, then out of the station. Police claimed the girl had blocked the victim when he attempted to run after the male robber, but was then restrained by the victim until police could arrive. She now faced one felony count of robbery of a train passenger.
– In late January 2020, according to the California Highway Patrol, a boy (age seventeen) was driving a vehicle while intoxicated at an excessive speed and without a valid driver’s license on a freeway in Mission Valley (San Diego County) when he lost control of the vehicle, struck a median, then plummeted into a ravine almost 50 feet below. Moments later, the vehicle exploded into a fireball. Inside the vehicle were two other teenage boys who were killed, as well as two more teenage boys who, like the driver, were all severely wounded but nevertheless managed to escape prior to the explosion. The driver was subsequently arrested on various felony charges, although fortunately for him, he was charged as a juvenile instead of as an adult. Because he was being adjudicated (i.e., prosecuted) in juvenile court, authorities would not disclose the specific charges. However, this did not prohibit authorities from later charging him as an adult.
Important Information about Juvenile Criminal Convictions
Juvenile convictions – again, known as sustained petitions – can result in no-jail terms all the way up to life imprisonment (if the defendant is convicted as an adult for the most serious violent crimes).
Ninaz Saffari’s Preferred Methods for Defending Juveniles
Assuming the judge and prosecutor are amenable, in most non-strike juvenile cases where her client has no prior criminal record (or at least no serious sustained petitions), Ninaz will do everything possible to get either diversion or deferred entry of judgment. These are sentencing options available to the judge which essentially give the young defendant a second chance.
Diversion, which is codified in W.I.C. section 654, and DEJ (as it’s commonly known), set forth in W.I.C. section 790, will both eventually result in a dismissal of the juvenile’s case so long as he or she complies with all the requirements ordered by the judge. These usually include completing counseling, community service, and school, as well as maintaining employment, and, of course, staying out of further trouble.
Ninaz also works hard to stay abreast of new developments, not only regarding juvenile criminal law but also about adolescent psychology. For example, recent psychological and medical studies, including by the American Psychiatric Association, show that teenagers’ frontal lobes are not yet fully developed. This is the portion of the brain that enables us to make reasoned decisions and appreciate the potential consequences of our actions. This ability to understand the gravity of one’s actions in teens is further debilitated by childhood trauma and alcohol & drug abuse. In certain cases (such as where the minor has a well-documented history of enduring sexual and/or physical abuse), Ninaz may consider having an expert witness testify to the court about this phenomena – not to excuse her client’s actions, but to explain them in the hope that her client be granted a more lenient sentence if his or her particular petition is sustained.
A Sample of Our Firm’s Past Juvenile Cases:
Sophomore facing possible attempted murder – in juvie for 6 weeks – all charges dismissed
People v. RS: While only a sophomore (tenth grade) at University High School in Los Angeles, Ninaz’s fifteen-year-old male client was arrested for allegedly trying to kill another boy while driving a stolen BMW in Beverly Hills. Because the victim was seriously injured, her client was facing seceral felonies, including attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon (the BMW). His family hired a locally-famous, big-name lawyer who took their money and repeatedly continued the case while the boy – who had never been in criminal trouble before – languished for months in a juvenile detention facility, where he faced constant threats of assault from other inmates. After finally losing their patience with the big-name lawyer’s failure to move the case along (or to even return their calls), the family had Ninaz take over the case. The first thing she did was visit the boy in jail, which is something the big-name lawyer had never bothered to do. Ninaz also set up an unusual meeting between the boy’s family members and his probation officer, which allowed the P.O. to understand that he came from a good family and, therefore, was not your typical violent youthful offender. She did so in order that the P.O. would support her attempts to obtain diversion for the boy. More importantly, she was able to prove to the court, the prosecutor, and the P.O. that the boy had been in the back seat at the time the driver ran over the victim; that her client was unaware of the driver’s intent to attack the victim; and that he didn’t even know the car was stolen. As a result, she was able to obtain diversion/DEJ and secure the immediate release of the boy.