What Happens When a Juvenile is Charged with a Felony in Utah?

In the state of Utah, people under age 18 are considered minors or juveniles.  Most of the time, juveniles go through civil rather than criminal court systems, face more lenient penalties than adult defendants, and have differently structured hearings with a greater degree of privacy and confidentiality.  However, when the charge involves a serious felony like murder or sexual assault, even very young teenagers can be tried as adults. In this sort of situation, the legal process is very different than it would be if the juvenile was charged with a misdemeanor, such as shoplifting or underage drinking.  In this article, Utah juvenile criminal defense attorney Darwin Overson talks about what to expect if your child is arrested for a felony in Utah.

Common Misdemeanors Juveniles Get Arrested For in Salt Lake City

Most juvenile crimes involve misdemeanors and infractions.  Some common examples of misdemeanor crimes minors are frequently charged with include:

  • Attempted Purchase of Alcohol
  • Attempted Purchase of Cigarettes
  • Curfew Violations
  • Graffiti Vandalism
  • Hazing in Utah 
  • Impaired Driving
  • Intoxicated Driving/DUI (Driving Under the Influence)
  • Possession of Alcohol
  • Possession of Drug Paraphernalia
  • Public Intoxication
  • Shoplifting (Retail Theft)
  • Simple Assault
  • Simple Possession of Marijuana
  • Trespassing in Utah  
  • Underage Drinking or Possession of Alcohol
  • Using a Fake ID

These types of offenses are heard in juvenile court in Salt Lake County, or the county where the alleged crime occurred.  If the juvenile admits guilt or is found guilty, sentencing is typically limited to probation, fines, community service, and rehabilitation or counseling where appropriate.  The juvenile will also receive a record, though its contents may be sealed (with some exceptions for courts and law enforcement) through a process known as expungement.

While not as common, young people can also be charged with committing offenses that are categorized as third-degree felonies, second-degree felonies, or even first degree felonies, the most serious type of offense under Utah’s criminal laws. This is where Utah’s Serious Youth Offender Law (SYOL) comes into play.

Juvenile Felonies Under Utah’s Serious Youth Offender Law (SYOL)

The Serious Youth Offender Law, which can be found at Utah Code § 78A-6-702, identifies nine felony offenses for which juvenile defendants are subject to adult criminal justice procedures:

  1. Aggravated Arson
  2. Aggravated Assault
  3. Aggravated Burglary
  4. Aggravated Kidnapping
  5. Aggravated Robbery
  6. Aggravated Sexual Assault
  7. Attempted Murder
  8. Attempted Aggravated Murder
  9. Felony Discharge of a Firearm

Under Utah Code § 78A-6-702(3)(b), a juvenile may be “held to answer in the district court in the same manner as an adult” if both of the following are true:

  1. The juvenile is 16 or 17 years old.
  2. The juvenile is charged with:
  • Any of the SYOL offenses on the list above.
  • Any other felony involving a dangerous weapon, if the juvenile also has prior convictions involving weapons crimes.  As defined under Utah Code § 76-10-501(6)(a), a “dangerous weapon” is any gun or any other object “capable of causing death or serious bodily injury.”

In other words, your child will be tried like an adult: not in a civil, juvenile court, but an adult, criminal court, where he or she will face the same penalties that an adult would face if convicted of the same crime.  Felonies are always heard in Utah’s district courts (as are Class A misdemeanors), whereas justice courts are reserved for hearing adult cases related to Class B and Class C misdemeanors.  You can find more information about going to district court in our article on where to go for court in Salt Lake County.

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Can My Child Be Tried as an Adult in Criminal Court?

Utah Code § 78A-6-702(3)(b) permits young defendants to be tried in district court like adults in some situations.  However, there are also many situations where this is not appropriate for the case, even if the charge relates to a felony.  As the same statute clarifies, juvenile cases should not be transferred (“bound over”) to district court if “the juvenile court judge finds that it would be contrary to the best interest of the minor and to the public.”  In other words, a 16- or 17-year-old may be able to avoid an adult criminal trial if such proceedings would neither be in their best interests, nor the best interests of the general public.

This brings up a very important question for parents and family members: how does the judge determine whether a case should be heard in adult or juvenile court?

Again, the statute provides the answer. Under Utah Code § 78A-6-702(3)(c), the judge will consider the following — and only the following — factors when determining which Utah court venue is most appropriate for your son or daughter’s case:

  • Has the minor ever been adjudicated delinquent for a crime which both (1) involved a dangerous weapon, and (2) would have been a felony if it was committed by an adult? (The term “adjudicated delinquent” simply means being found guilty of a delinquent act, or an act which would have been deemed a misdemeanor or felony had it been committed by an adult.)
  • If the crime was committed by a group of people, to what extent was the juvenile involved? Were they less involved than the other participants?  A person who passively participates in a crime generally has less criminal liability (fault) than a person who was an active ringleader or participant.
  • Was the offense considered “violent, aggressive, or premeditated?”  A premeditated offense is an offense that was planned out in advance.  Premeditation is one of the elements that distinguishes murder from manslaughter.
  • What sort of prior record does the juvenile have, if any? Does he or she have a long list of “delinquent acts,” or is this their first offense?  Courts are more likely to be lenient with juveniles (or adults) who have a clean criminal record as compared to someone who has an extensive record of arrests or convictions.
  • Would it be safer and more efficient for the general public if the juvenile’s case were heard in an adult district court? If the case were to be tried in juvenile court, would it pose any threat to, or cause any hardship for, the greater community?

Whether the minor is tried in adult or juvenile court depends heavily on the answers to these questions.  However, there are unfortunately a few circumstances where an adult trial cannot be avoided. For example, a 16- or 17-year-old’s case will automatically be bound over to district court if he or she:

  • Is charged with committing murder.
  • Is charged with committing another felony, of any kind, after being previously sentenced to a “secure facility,” which is the juvenile equivalent of jail or prison.

While 16 is the typical age threshold for adult trial proceedings, minors as young as 14 years old can tried like an adult if the prosecutor is able to convince the judge that district court would be the most appropriate venue for the case.  Specifically, the prosecutor must have a compelling argument as to why it is in the state of Utah’s best interests that the case be heard in adult court rather than juvenile court.

Your child’s defense attorney in Utah will counter the prosecutor’s argument by emphasizing the hardships and drawbacks of sending the case to district court.  District courts are more formal, less private, and impose far harsher penalties than juvenile courts.

utah criminal defense attorney

Was Your Son or Daughter Arrested? Contact Our Salt Lake City Juvenile Defense Attorneys for Legal Help

It’s extremely important that your child is represented by an experienced Utah juvenile felony attorney who can effectively challenge, dissect, and question evidence presented by the prosecution. A robust defense strategy can be the difference between your child going to juvenile court, and being prosecuted for a felony as if he or she were an adult.

Even in cases involving aggravated murder, minors cannot be sentenced to death.  Juveniles are one of several exceptions to the death penalty in Utah.  However, while capital punishment is not a sentencing possibility, juveniles can still be sent to prison for decades if they are convicted of aggravated murder or other serious crimes.

Parents should not expect prosecutors to “go easy” on their children because of their age, especially not if the victim of the alleged crime was also a minor.  On the contrary, it is vital that your child’s legal rights are protected by a tough, knowledgeable, and aggressive criminal attorney who has years of experience representing teenagers charged with felonies and misdemeanors in Utah, like Darwin Overson.  With over a decade of experience handling thousands of criminal cases, Darwin may be able to have the charges dropped or the case dismissed, or obtain a lighter sentence for your son or daughter.

Don’t wait to start exploring your family’s legal options. To set up a free and completely confidential case evaluation, call Salt Lake juvenile defense lawyer Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287 today.  While the law offices of Overson Law are based in Salt Lake City, Darwin also handles felony cases in Wasatch County, Summit County, Box Elder County, Tooele County, Davis County, Cache County, Weber County, and throughout the state of Utah.