An Overview of Juvenile Court Procedure in Florida

Here in Florida, juvenile delinquency court, the formal name for juvenile criminal court, operates quite differently from that of adult criminal court. These differences are so profound that there are hundreds of pages of court rules specific to the Florida juvenile courts. As such, when you and your child are walking into a juvenile delinquency proceeding, it’s vital to know what to expect. In particular, you should also be aware of some common pitfalls as well as how your actions and those of your child may impact the case.

Thus this post provides a general overview of the juvenile delinquency procedure. However, the best source of information and guidance is an experienced juvenile defense lawyer.

Attorney Matthew Lufrano has devoted his career to helping people who have been charged with crimes and juveniles who have been alleged to be delinquent. He has a thorough understanding of both the substantive law and the procedural requirements in both juvenile court and the adult criminal court system. That dual experience is especially important if your child is in jeopardy of being transferred to adult court.

You can schedule a consultation right now by calling 904-513-3905 or filling out the contact form on this site.

The Juvenile Court Process in Florida

How are Juvenile Cases Initiated?

There are a few ways in which a juvenile delinquency case can be initiated here in Florida. The first and perhaps most common way that a juvenile case is initiated would be if a child is arrested. If such an arrest occurs the child will be initially detained and then within 24 hours the child will be taken before a Judge who will review the allegations and then will determine whether the child may be released to their parents or will remain in custody.

The second way that a juvenile case may begin involves a child receiving a notice to appear. A notice to appear is a written document, somewhat akin to a ticket, but it is criminal in nature. Further, as the name suggests a notice to appear provides a child and their parents with a specific date, time, and location to appear to begin addressing the case. It should also be mentioned that notices to appear may be used by police officers as opposed to arresting a child.

The third way that a juvenile case can begin is through the receipt of a summons. A summons is an official directive that a child must appear before a judge to address a case. Just as with a notice to appear a summons provides a date, time, and location to appear before the judge. Additionally a summons is another avenue through which a juvenile case may be started without an arrest.

But regardless of which of these three avenues are utilized to bring a child before the Court, whether or not a delinquency case will proceed rests in the hands of the prosecution. The prosecutor assigned to the case will review the allegations as well as the evidence that exists to decide whether or not to proceed with the prosecution. As such, having an attorney who can make contact with the prosecutor as early as possible can be incredibly helpful. For instance an attorney could try to get the prosecutor to abandon the case, to send the case to diversion, or in some more serious cases make the argument to keep the matter out of adult court. So if you or your child are facing a potential delinquency proceeding don’t delay in seeking help.

Abandoning or Dropping Charges in a Juvenile Case

It is important to understand that no two juvenile delinquency cases are the same. Each case will involve different allegations, different parties, and most importantly different children facing these allegations. The result of this is that it can be very difficult to compare one case to another. That said, regardless of the type of case the best resolution in any delinquency case is for the prosecution to drop or abandon the charges. If the charges are dropped then no penalty or further restrictions are imposed upon a child and the case is over. Now having a skilled juvenile defense lawyer can certainly improve one’s chances of having charges dropped. However it is also worth being aware that no defense attorney can guarantee or promise such an outcome. But the dropping or abandonment of charges isn’t the only positive outcome a juvenile defendant may be seeking.

Pre-Trial Diversion in Juvenile Cases

Pre-trial diversion is frequently thought of as the second most favorable disposition that a child could receive if facing a delinquency case. Pre-trial diversion functions like a hybrid between probation and having charges abandoned or dropped. More specifically if a child’s case is placed in pre-trial diversion the child will be monitored as if they were on probation and they will be required to complete certain tasks. As you may also expect they are prohibited from being rearrested or committing new law offenses. However, if a child in Pre-trial diversion successfully completes the conditions assigned then the charges against them are dropped.

Charging a Juvenile with a Criminal Offense and Discovery

Now in scenarios where a prosecutor doesn’t agree to drop the charges against a juvenile and when the prosecutor also won’t divert a juvenile’s case to pre-trial diversion, the prosecutor will instead formally file criminal charges against the juvenile. The formal filing of such charges in a juvenile delinquency proceeding is known as “filing a petition”. The petition is the formal charging document used in delinquency cases and it will contain the specific charges that are alleged to have been violated, the statute number, and the date of the alleged criminal conduct. As a result, the petition provides the juvenile and their counsel with important information that may be needed in order to defend the case.

In addition to being provided with the formal charging document or petition, whenever a petition is filed against a juvenile they are entitled to a formal court proceeding known as an Arraignment. Now an arraignment hearing in the delinquency context is similar to an arraignment in adult criminal court. At this hearing, the juvenile will be formally advised of the charges against them and will also be asked to enter either a plea guilty or not guilty.

Whether to enter a guilty plea can be a tough decision that is best made with the guidance of an experienced juvenile defense lawyer. You may be tempted to encourage your child to enter a guilty plea–especially if you know or believe that they are actually guilty. But, this isn’t a decision you should make lightly. You may not be aware of all of the possible consequences–including indirect consequences–of entering a guilty plea. And, entering a guilty plea can cut off important rights.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to consult a local juvenile court lawyer before this hearing, pleading not guilty preserves your rights while you gather the information you need to make the best decision for your family.

Now generally the filing of a petition launches the formal discovery process if it hasn’t begun already. The discovery process typically involves the juvenile defense attorney as well as any other members of the defense team reviewing what evidence the prosecution possesses, deposing potential witnesses, and looking for other favorable evidence. These efforts help expose potential flaws in the case, while also providing concrete insight into the strength of the prosecution. Further a juvenile’s defense attorney will then advise them based upon this information to help them make the best choice for how to resolve their case.

Now when it comes to filing charges against a juvenile for alleged criminal acts in Florida there is one other concept that is worth mentioning and this is known as “Direct Filing”. Direct Filing refers to filing the criminal charges against a juvenile not in juvenile court but in adult criminal court. Now there are limited circumstances when this can occur, but it is important to know that generally if a juvenile is directly filed or charged as an adult, they typically face the same potential consequences that an adult charged would face. So if your child or a child you are close to is at risk for a possible direct filing, don’t delay, contact an experienced juvenile defense attorney as soon as possible.

Overall Options of How to Resolve a Juvenile Delinquency Case: Trial, Plea Deal, or Plea to the Court

Now in every juvenile delinquency case the child has options on how he or she would like to resolve their case. It is also important to understand that while a defense attorney or a parent might strongly encourage a child to make a specific choice with regards to this decision, the ultimate decision rests solely with the child. So what options does a juvenile who is facing a delinquency petition have, well they are as follows:

1. To Proceed to Trial

  • In a delinquency proceeding a child has the right to a trial before a judge. This means the judge would serve as both the finder of fact and the law.
  • In such a trial the burden would remain on the prosecution to prove to the judge by evidence beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt that the child committed the offense alleged.
  • If the prosecution fails to meet this burden the case is over and no penalties are imposed on the child.
  • If the prosecution meets this burden then the judge would later on impose a penalty they believed to be appropriate.

2. To Reach a Plea Deal

  • A plea deal is exactly what it sounds like and it is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense to resolve a case.
  • In such a scenario if both sides agree on the offense to be pled to and the penalty to be imposed the child can enter a plea and will receive the same sentence agreed upon.
  • This option has the benefit of providing certainty in an outcome and also limiting the potential ramifications. But it carries the burden of still coming with a punishment for the child.
  • But it is important to know that a child can never be forced to enter a plea deal.

3. To Plea to the Court

  • With a plea to the Court no trial is held as a juvenile defendant is waiving their right to contest the allegations. Instead a sentencing hearing is held to determine what an appropriate penalty would be.
  • In such a scenario the decision is left up to the discretion of the Judge, however both the prosecution and defense will have the ability to call witnesses and make argument in favor of a particular penalty.
  • Depending on the seriousness of the offense and the possible penalties, the court may order a predisposition report to help the judge make decisions about disposition. The court may decide to:
    • Withhold adjudication, which is similar to the diversion program except that it occurs post-petition and after a guilty plea. If the juvenile successfully completes the terms of probation, the court will not enter an adjudication of delinquency.
    • Adjudicate the juvenile delinquent and place the child on probation.
    • Adjudicate the juvenile delinquent and commit them to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

After Adjudication of Delinquency

Be aware that an adjudication of delinquency isn’t the end of the road. If a juvenile is adjudicated delinquent and placed on probation, all of the possible consequences of that adjudication remain on the table until the juvenile has successfully completed probation. A probation violation could result in sanctions, additional conditions of probation, or even commitment to DJJ.

How Juvenile Court Lawyers Can Help

From prematurely entering a guilty plea to not fully understanding the consequences of an adjudication, the juvenile justice process is filled with opportunities for serious missteps. An experienced criminal lawyer like Matthew Lufrano can prepare you and your child for the process, negotiate on your behalf, help you navigate around those pitfalls and work with you to achieve the best possible outcome for your family.

The sooner you get a seasoned advocate on your side, the better. Call 904-513-3905 right now to schedule your consultation.