Why would a criminal traffic case end up in juvenile court?

Most criminal traffic cases involving a juvenile defendant do not end up in juvenile court; they are usually handled in the court of limited jurisdiction that covers the area where the violation took place. A limited jurisdiction court is limited in that it can only hear misdemeanor cases, and cannot hear felony cases. Limited jurisdiction courts include municipal courts, like Tempe Municipal Court or Scottsdale City Court, as well as justice courts presided over by elected justices of the peace. For example, if a juvenile is issued a ticket by the Tempe Police Department, the case will begin in the Tempe Municipal Court. If the traffic ticket is issued by the Department of Public Safety, the case will begin in the justice court whose precinct encompasses the location of the alleged violation.

Juvenile court is a division of the Superior Court of Arizona and handles a variety of cases ranging from adoption cases to felony criminal cases, and everything in between including misdemeanor traffic cases. A misdemeanor traffic case is typically commenced in a court of limited jurisdiction, and the court of limited jurisdiction may then transfer the case to the juvenile court if:

  • the juvenile defendant is on probation;
  • the juvenile defendant has another criminal case pending in the juvenile court; or
  • the court determines that the juvenile defendant’s needs exceed the scope of the court.

A court may determine that the juvenile’s needs exceed the scope of the court if the juvenile defendant has a history of criminal traffic convictions.

When a case is transferred to juvenile court, it can result in a better outcome for the juvenile defendant.

In most adult criminal traffic cases, the prosecutor is primarily concerned with extorting money from the defendant. This typically holds true for juvenile cases too when the case is not in juvenile court. The prosecutors, judges, and probation officers in the juvenile court are more concerned with addressing whatever underlying problems the juvenile is experiencing that may have contributed to the criminal act. In a limited jurisdiction court a prosecutor might see a repeat juvenile defendant as someone who simply got off too easy the first time and needs punished more severely. In juvenile court, the attitude will be more along the lines of there is an underlying problem that is causing the juvenile to make poor choices, and what can be done to fix it.

How is juvenile court different from limited jurisdiction courts that would typically handle a criminal traffic case?

In a typical criminal traffic case, there is an arraignment, one or more pretrial conferences, and maybe a trial or a change of plea hearing to conclude the case. Any sentencing (the imposing of a punishment like jail or a fine) takes place when the defendant is found guilty, either at the time of trial or at a change of plea hearing. In a typical criminal traffic case, the negotiations take place with the prosecutor, and the judge makes decisions when there are disputes and decides if there is sufficient evidence to find the defendant guilty if the case goes to trial.

When a criminal traffic case is referred to juvenile court, the process is similar in that negotiations still take place with a prosecutor, and the judge still resolves disputes and presides over a trial if a trial is held, but there are some additional players involved and the court dates go by different names.

When a case is transferred to juvenile court, a probation officer is assigned to the case. The probation officer plays in important role in the case because the probation officer advises the judge with respect to the defendant’s release conditions as well as what punishment is appropriate. The probation officer will contact the parent(s) of the juvenile and will ask the parent(s) to complete a lengthy questionnaire. The probation officer will typically speak with the juvenile defendant as well. For a traffic case, if there are no glaring problems that might require outside intervention, the probation officer will often recommend that the juvenile be released under the supervision of his or her parents without any active probation supervision. The probation officer is someone that the juvenile and his or her parent(s) should cooperate with.

The first court date in a juvenile criminal traffic case is the advisory hearing. The advisory hearing is very similar to an arraignment. The next court date is the pre-adjudication conference, which is very similar to a pretrial conference. There may be more than one pre-adjudication conference while the prosecutor and defendant discuss the case. If a plea agreement is reached at a pretrial conference in a non-juvenile criminal traffic case, the parties will inform the court of the agreement right then, and the court will accept the plea agreement, impose any sentence (usually a fine), and then the case is done. In a juvenile criminal traffic case, if the prosecutor and defendant reach an agreement at a pre-adjudication hearing, they inform the court and the court sets another court date called a disposition hearing. At the disposition hearing, the court will impose any sentence, and that sentence will be based in part on the recommendation of the probation officer. The reason the case cannot conclude at the pre-adjudication hearing and the court sets a disposition hearing is to allow the probation officer time to make an assessment and recommendation regarding sentencing.

If no agreement is reached between the prosecutor and defendant, the court will set an adjudication hearing, which is what the juvenile court calls a trial. After the trial, the court would then set a disposition hearing if the defendant is found delinquent (guilty).

Juvenile records can be destroyed when the juvenile turns 18.

Subject to certain conditions, when a juvenile turns 18, he or she can apply to the court to have their criminal records destroyed. In summary, the defendant must:

  • be at least 18 years old;
  • not been convicted of a felony;
  • not have any criminal cases pending;
  • have successfully completed any probation; and
  • any restitution ordered has been paid in full.

When we represent juvenile defendants, we always calendar a task to file the application to destroy any records once the juvenile has turned 18.