Wednesday, June 17, 2020

In re S.J. (Cal. Ct. App. - June 17, 2020)

Maybe I'm just punch drunk after a long day's work, but I found this opinion inexplicably funny. 

The Court of Appeal deals with all sorts of incredibly serious cases -- murder, molestation, etc. -- on a daily basis, as well as (often) incredibly long prison sentences.  By contrast, this one involves a just-turned-17 year old who, unwisely, borrowed his brother's car, got drunk at a party, stupidly elected to drive home at around midnight, and ended up hitting a parked car and a fence.

No one's hurt.  The kid's got no criminal record.  But he's busted for DUI -- a serious offense -- so he gets put into the juvenile system.  Which is fine, because, honestly, that's why we have the thing in the first place.  To put people like this back on track.

Lots of times, the court will just place kids like this on informal supervision.  Which basically means nothing.  And the kid seems to have the right attitude.  He tells his that "he regretted his action and had learned his lesson. He said he did not belong to a gang and his goal was to graduate high school and find a union construction job."  Fair enough.  Made a mistake, yes.  But has a plan.  Someone far from irredeemable.  (Other facts from the opinion:  "The Probation Department’s report stated that Appellant’s family support system “appears to be stable” and that his mother said he “behaves in a prosocial manner at home.”"  Good.  Glad to hear it.  That helps.)

But the kid also admits that he's previously smoked marijuana twice a week, as well as (obviously, given his DUI) occasionally consumes alcohol.  Again, he's 17.  I suspect that a nontrivial number of 17-year olds would say the same thing.  Not good, definitely.  But at least he admitted it.

So it just struck me that the juvenile court judge here is totally just being a parent.  Thinking about things the exact same way I would if it were my own kid who had done all these things, and I was trying to figure out what discipline to impose and how to get him back on track.  It's funny to think of a black-robed judge just basically being a parent.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Albeit within the weird confines of a formal criminal justice system and the fact that it's not, in fact, your kid, and you've maybe had 15 minutes with the child in your whole life.

But the kicker to me was this:  "Appellant had good school attendance, but his grades were very poor, including many F’s in the past two years."

Yeah.  That's not okay.  Way not okay.  I suspect that my own children think I overvalue education way too much.  But tough.  Whether it's my kids or other kids, when you're getting F's, that's very much unacceptable, and a sign of serious trouble.  Trouble that we need to stop in its tracks, now.

Which is exactly what it seems like the probation department and the trial court here were thinking.  The minor wants informal probation, which is often imposed in cases like this, but they're not on board for that.  The probation officer says: “I think that if this minor had been doing better in school and his parents had a better handle on things, he would be more appropriate. But because it does appear he has a lack of supervision and consequences provided at home and is doing so poor in school with his substance abuse issues, that informal probation would not suffice."  The trial court similarly opines:  "A standard term in adult-land for a DUI is search and seizure for alcohol. It’s important. And it’s particularly important when we have a minor . . . whose parents or his mother has allowed, whether tacitly or expressly, the minor to consume alcohol. So I think that it’s a nonstarter where we have facts like these here. So I just don’t see how, in a DUI with a .12 and a minor who also smokes marijuana, we can effectively supervise and ensure rehabilitation without a search and seizure clause, which is foreclosed in an informal probation setting.”

Maybe some parents decide to drug-test their kids after incidents like this.  Or start to search their kid's room.  The trial court here does basically the exact same thing.  She's not going to put him on informal probation because that way the probation department can search him whenever they'd like.  That's the formal justice equivalent of a parent taking the door off your room, searching your closet, or making you take a drug test.

Parents in robes on a Wednesday afternoon.