Common charges and how to defend against them
If you’re a high school or college student, you’re at a point in your life that’s as full of possibility as it is of peril. You’re making the choices that will shape your adult identity. Your daily life is a barrage of exposure to new people, experiences, and ideas, and your relationship with the world is defined by the strongest verbs: worship, idolize, emulate, create, rebel, destroy. Most of it is exciting, much of it is mundane, and very little of it is easy. As you pick up, test, disregard, swap, and forge new convictions and beliefs, you may find yourself in difficult and unintended situations with friends, with family members, with employers – and with the law.
Young people often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, and unprepared to deal with the consequences that could befall them when they face the police and courts. If you’re in this situation, you might have committed an illegal act out of boredom, malice, or peer pressure; you might have found yourself mixed up in a situation that got out of your control; or, in some cases, you might have been innocent and wrongfully arrested and accused. Now, though, you face a criminal charge that could derail your education or your job, put significant stress on your family and other relationships, drain your finances just as you’re trying to start saving, and seriously jeopardize your career aspirations.
Regardless of the exact circumstances that led to your current predicament, you need qualified legal counsel. Before you retain an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help you get out of this situation with as little damage and cost as possible, you should educate yourself about some of the common charges young people face, and about some ways to defend against them.
Understanding juvenile criminal law in New York State
Reforms in New York State have taken significant steps to shifting the focus of the criminal justice system to the rehabilitation rather than the punishment of juveniles convicted of crimes. The focus now is on measures to change behavior, and to set minors on a path to becoming independent, law-abiding, civic-minded adult members of society. There is decreasing faith in the idea that imprisonment and other harsh penalties contribute toward these goals – and there is mounting evidence that such punitive measures hurt more than they help, pushing children deeper into criminal cultures and antisocial attitudes.
This doesn’t mean that juveniles are exempt from life-changing punishments. If you are under the age of 16 and convicted of a serious crime, a judge might still sentence you to a juvenile detention center for up to nine years – more than half your current age. If yours was a violent crime, a prosecutor might request for you to be tried as an adult.
If you are a juvenile facing criminal charges, the outcome of your case will determine the course of your life. If you are innocent, you will need an excellent trial lawyer to dismantle the prosecution’s case and demonstrate “reasonable doubt” about your guilt. If you did commit the crime in question, you will need an attorney who can present your case in the best possible light. That attorney can advise you as to what steps you should take: voluntarily submitting to drug or behavior rehabilitation and presenting character references or other evidence of your potential to contribute positively to society could go a long way.
Eligibility for youthful offender status
You’ve likely heard warnings from parents, teachers, and guidance counselors about how much your actions today can affect your adult life. Because of the Internet, you’ve grown up with incredible resources no other generation had – but you’re also experiencing challenges and pitfalls that no previous generation has faced. Every post and picture is permanent. Every Internet tidbit that mentions your name – including police and courts posts – will be easy for a college or employer to find.
If you’ve “messed up” as a young adult, it may ruin your career aspirations. If you can transition into adulthood gracefully, build a solid resume and cultivate reliable character references, and interview well, employers may be inclined to forgive an embarrassing Facebook post from your high school years – they’ll understand that if the Internet had been what it is now when they were young, their careers might have been jeopardized, too. Criminal convictions, however, are another story. Almost any employment application will ask outright whether you’ve been convicted of any felony offenses; some will ask about misdemeanors; and others will involve background checks. A criminal conviction at a young age could derail all of your hopes and plans.
However, the New York State Penal Code does contain a potential allowance for youthful indiscretion. If you’re under the age of 19 and charged with a criminal offense, you may be eligible for “youthful offender status.”
This doesn’t mean that you won’t face penalties. A conviction could still mean fines, other restrictions, and even a sentence to a juvenile detention center. However, your conviction wouldn’t leave a criminal record. If you take your crime and conviction as a learning experience, get your life on track, and avoid any further criminal activity, your future success, happiness, and financial security won’t be in jeopardy.
Underage drinking might seem like a rite of passage; it might seem like a fact of life as a teenager in Buffalo; and the laws against it might seem fundamentally unjust and wrongheaded. These things might be true – but that doesn’t change the fact that an arrest and conviction for underage drinking can be damaging to your finances, relationship, education, and career goals.
There is technically no “underage drinking” charge in New York; nor is there an explicit prohibition on purchasing alcohol. If police catch you drinking alcohol, however, you aren’t likely to get away without a charge. Under the New York Alcoholic Beverage Control Law, it is an offense for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase or attempt to purchase an alcoholic beverage through fraudulent means. This is separate from the law against possession of false identification. The New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law makes it a misdemeanor to buy (or sell) a fake or stolen license (and a second offense is a felony), while it is an offense (though not a “criminal” offense”) to “possess or use any forged, fictitious or illegally obtained license, or any license belonging to another person.” On top of this, it’s an offense under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law for a person under 21 to possess alcohol “with the intent to consume.” This means that if you use a fake ID to purchase alcohol, you could face three separate charges – or more, depending on the context. The only exception to the possession or consumption charges is for alcohol provided by a parent or guardian – but if you’re at a bar or restaurant and you use a fake ID to purchase alcohol with your parent or guardian’s consent and affirmation, you could still face charges for possession of the ID, while your parent or guardian would face charges for misrepresenting your age for the purpose of purchasing and consuming alcohol.
The steepest penalties will be for the misdemeanor crime of purchasing or possessing any form of identification that is fake of fictitious. On top of that, the non-criminal offenses could result in fines of up to $50, community service, and mandatory alcohol awareness programs.
You will need an experienced criminal defense attorney to navigate the nuanced distinctions of New York’s underage alcohol consumption laws.
Under 21 DWI
New York has a “zero tolerance” alcohol policy for drivers under 21. If you are a driver under 21 and police pull you over, and if you blow a BAC of .01-.07, you will be charged with underage DWI. This would be a DWAI for a driver over 21, carrying fines and the suspension of the convicted person’s driver’s license for six months. For a driver under 21, however, there is no DWAI: the charge is technically “driving after consuming alcohol,” and while the financial penalties will be less severe than for a DWAI, the driver’s license suspension will be for one year. A “driving after consuming alcohol” charge will not go to criminal court – it will be handled within the Department of Motor Vehicles. While a conviction will mean the loss of your license for a year, you may get a conditional license that will allow you to drive to and from work, school, and medical appointments. The charge will not “count” as a DWI on your future record (unlike normal, “adult” DWIs and DWAIs, which cannot be expunged).
Note, however, that even a trace of alcohol in your system will result in a charge.
If you blow a BAC of .08 or more, you will be treated as an adult. If you have a strong suspicion that you will register at .08 or above, you should weigh the option of refusing the breath test. You do have this right, but exercising it will carry consequences, including the automatic suspension of your license for one year (which would run concurrently with your “driving after consuming alcohol” or DWI suspension), and fines from the DMV.
Possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana in New York State is now a violation – not a crime. There will, however, be a fine if you are convicted (probably $100).
A marijuana charge on your record could be very embarrassing, damaging to your reputation, and concerning to a potential employer. If this is a first offense, a skilled attorney might be able to secure an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD). This means that if you stay out of trouble for a certain period and satisfy other conditions from the court (for example, undergoing a drug evaluation or rehabilitation program), the case will be sealed. As far as public record and employment is concerned, it will be as if your charge and conviction “never happened.”
Be cautioned, though: you may be charged with a B misdemeanor if you possess or consume marijuana in a public place, or if you possess over 25 grams. Possession of more than 2 ounces (about 57 grams) will be an A misdemeanor charge.
It is illegal in New York State to drive under the influence of any mind-altering substance – not just alcohol. Many young people are surprised to be pulled over, arrested, and charged with a “DWI” for driving after consuming marijuana. You may not feel like this is a crime, but the fact is that it’s extremely dangerous to operate a vehicle after taking marijuana, and if police catch you doing this you will be charged and prosecuted exactly as if you had been driving drunk. There will not be a breathalyzer involved, but the authorities have other ways of measuring marijuana intoxication. The penalties will be the same as for a regular DWI.
Criminal mischief is broad category covering any damage of another person’s property, either with intent or because of reckless or negligent behavior. For young people, criminal mischief charges often come from graffiti, vandalism, damage to cars, damage to homes (like broken windows or smashed mailboxes), or damage to other personal items (like a smashed cellphone, slashed bike tires, or ripped clothes).
The word “mischief” can be misleading: the charge, and the penalties involved, are very serious. If convicted of even the lowest level of criminal mischief (fourth degree), you would be guilty of a class A misdemeanor and subject to fines and up to one year in prison.
Damage to property valued in excess of $250 could be criminal mischief in the third degree, an E felony punishable by up to four years in prison.
Damage to property values in excess of $1,500 could be criminal mischief in the second degree, a D felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
If you have damaged another person’s property by means of an explosive device, you are guilty of first degree criminal mischief, a class B violent felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
If you’ve been charged with criminal mischief, you need the counsel of an experienced criminal attorney. Depending on the circumstances of your case, you might be able to seek youthful offender status or reduced charges, or have the charges thrown out altogether. Facing the threat of serious prison sentences, there’s far too much at stake to face these charges alone and unprepared.
For many students at large universities, “hazing” seems like a normal and accepted part of the college experience – especially for students who experienced hazing themselves, during the initiation into a fraternity or sorority. In the eyes of the law, however, hazing is a serious offense.
While hazing is not a “crime,” it is violation, and a person charged with hazing could spend 15 days in jail – seriously jeopardizing a career and education, causing embarrassment, and putting stress on that person’s relationships with family and friends. Hazing might result in expulsion from a school, which in turn could threaten a person’s career goals. Furthermore, a skilled prosecutor could push to include additional charges for illegal actions associated with hazing, such as underage consumption of alcohol, criminal mischief, and assault.
Fighting, roughhousing, or horseplay often feel like a natural part of life for young people. But, whether a fight started in “good fun” or because of a heated dispute, any altercation could leave one or more parties facing serious assault charges.
There are three degrees of assault in New York State, distinguished by intent, the extent of the injuries, and whether weapons were involved.
|Assault in the third degree||A misdemeanor||Injury and intent, or negligence||Up to 1 year in jail; fine of up to $1,000|
|Assault in the second degree||D Felony||Serious injury and/or use of a weapon||Up to 7 years in jail; fine of up to $5,000|
|Assault in the first degree||B Violent Felony||Most extreme cases||Up to 20 years in jail; fine of up to $30,000|
You will automatically face a second degree assault charge if you injure a public servant in such a way that you prevent the person from doing his or her job; if you assault a person 65 or older and you are at least 10 years younger; or if you are at least 18 and assault a person 11 or younger.
For either felony assault charge, you may face jail time, and probationary restrictions after your sentence is over. If convicted, your rights, including gun ownership, will be curtailed. You will not be able to vote while in jail or on parole. You may be barred from certain careers.
Your attorney can challenge any of these charges by showing that the prosecution cannot prove your intent to cause injury beyond a reasonable doubt, or by disputing the extent or causation of the other party’s injuries. Self-defense or defense of another, if demonstrable, will also clear your name.
Over 30 years of criminal defense experience
If you’re a young person facing criminal charges, you need to take swift, decisive action to protect your rights, your finances, and your future.
Arthur Pressman has over 30 years of legal experience, earning a reputation for excellence at a large Miami, FL law firm, as a public defender in Buffalo, NY, and in his own private practice. Thousands of Western New York clients have relied on him to secure reduced or dropped charges and lenient sentences, to escape wrongful convictions or other knotty legal situations, and to get their lives back on track.
Contact the law office of Arthur L. Pressman, Attorney at Law today to set up a free and confidential consultation in his downtown Buffalo office. In the meantime, you can continue to educate yourself about criminal defense by browsing the other legal resources on this website. You might start with our blog or videos.