Constitutional Rights in Juvenile Cases

A look at the constitutional due process rights of youth in juvenile court cases. 

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Minors in juvenile court delinquency proceedings do not have the same constitutional rights as those given to adults in regular criminal court cases. In fact, prior to the 1960s juveniles had few due process rights at all. But as juvenile court proceedings have become more formal, states and courts have strengthened juveniles' constitutional rights. (To learn more about the unique nature of juvenile court cases, see Nolo's article Juvenile Court: An Overview.)

Below is a summary of the due process rights that do and do not apply to juveniles in delinquency proceedings. Some of these rights derive from U.S. Supreme Court cases -- and therefore apply to all states -- while other rights vary by state.

Probable cause needed to search a minor. Police officers must have probable cause to search and arrest a minor who is suspected of violating a criminal statute. However, public officials in quasi-parental relationships with minors -- like school personnel -- need only "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing rather than probable cause to temporarily detain and search minors. (To learn more about probable cause, see Nolo's Criminal Arrests & Interrogations FAQ.)

Right to a phone call. Usually, a minor is allowed to make at least one phone call if they are in custody and not likely to be released quickly. The minor can call a parent or guardian, who in turn can contact an attorney. Or the minor can contact an attorney directly. By asking to speak with a parent or attorney, the minor invokes his or her Miranda rights. So, if police ignore the minor's request to consult a parent or attorney, anything the minor says to the police after that will likely be inadmissible in juvenile court. (To learn more about Miranda in the context of adult criminal proceedings, see Nolo's article Miranda Rights: What Happens If Police Don't 'Read Your Rights.')

No right to bail. Juveniles do not have a constitutional right to seek bail. But many juveniles are released to their parents or guardians prior to arraignment in juvenile court.

The right to counsel. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court (in a case called In re Gault) ruled that minors have the right to an attorney in juvenile proceedings. If a minor cannot afford an attorney, he or she has the right to be represented by a state-appointed attorney.

The right to notice of the charges. In re Gault also requires that a juvenile be provided with notice of the delinquency charges he or she faces.

The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. Even though a juvenile adjudication hearing is not a formal criminal trial, a minor has the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses -- meaning the minor gets a chance to question (through an attorney) the people called to testify by the state, and to challenge their testimony.

The privilege against self-incrimination. Minors in juvenile court proceedings have a right to assert their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. This means that a minor cannot be forced to testify against him or herself. (To learn more about the right against self-incrimination, see Nolo's article Defendants' Rights During Trial: The Bill of Rights.)

No (or limited) right to a jury trial. Most states do not allow jury trials in juvenile delinquency cases. The few states that do allow jury trials often limit them to only certain types of juvenile cases. (See Do juveniles have a right to trial by jury?)

The right to have charges proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that if a juvenile faces incarceration or adjudication as "delinquent" as a result of juvenile court proceedings, then the state must prove the charges against the juvenile "beyond a reasonable doubt." If those penalties are not at issue, the state need only prove the charges by a "preponderance of evidence" standard.

For more information about juvenile court, the rights of minors in juvenile proceedings, and how to help if you are the parent of a minor in trouble with the law, get The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo). And if you need a lawyer experienced with the juvenile justice system, you can turn to Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to find an attorney near you.

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