Graduation is such a special time, not just for those who are leaving high school or college, but also for their parents and families. It is the culmination of years of encouragement, watching, waiting, and praying. Whether proceeding to college or a career, the graduate is embarking on life as an adult.
Most of us have managed to navigate the waters of young adulthood without lasting damage. Each year, however, it seems to become more difficult, and more young people find themselves trapped in the legal system. The problems are as often civil as criminal. Rules of thumb for those reaching their majority could be summed up as:
1) Life is not fair;
2) If it sounds too good to be true – it is;
3) Outside family, no one “gives” anything of value – there IS a catch;
4) Ignorance is no excuse for anything;
5) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – not do unto others before they do unto you;
6) When in doubt, check it – or don’t do it!
(Loosely paraphrased from (Loosely paraphrased from What Every 18 Year Old Needs to Know about Texas Law, L. Jean Wallace)
One of the most serious civil matters to involve young adults is parenthood. Whether the child was conceived with or without benefit of a marriage, the persons involved will be held responsible by the State for its support through its majority. If either parent chooses to disregard this responsibility, most Attorney General Offices across the nation will work together to enforce it. It can take a while to find the absentee parent, but once found, support, expenses and interest will be assessed. Employers will be contacted to insure that funds are withheld from checks, and the IRS is also notified. Deadbeat parents do not receive tax refunds! While a person under seventeen cannot be sued for this support, the suit can be filed as soon as that birthday is past, even though the child was born earlier. In most states, the obligation to support the child ends with its majority at seventeen or eighteen. If assessed funds are still due, however, the parent may spend the remainder of his or her life paying for the child conceived while a young adult.
Many young people have their first experience with the court system as a result of landlord / tenant issues. Unfortunately, since most landlords have their leases carefully drafted by attorneys, and very few renters bother to read what they sign, it is an unfavorable experience. Even as ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it, ignorance of the terms of an agreement is not a valid reason for breaking it. Take the time to read – and comprehend -any document, no matter how small the print or how boring the language before signing. It can save considerable headache!
At seventeen, young people are adults for the purposes of our criminal courts. Unfortunately, an amazing number have the opportunity to learn about the judicial system in this manner. Texas has a statute often referred to as the “law of parties.” Without going in to detail, it means that when a group goes to key someone’s car, or commit other mischief or crimes, each person in the group can and probably will be charged with the offense. All that the State must prove is that, by presence, word, or deed the person was involved. There is no boyfriend, girlfriend, or comment made worth going to jail over, but each year an amazing number of young people make that trip. The common excuses run the gamut from being angry (because he/she took my friends’ boyfriend/girlfriend), insulted (he / she said ____ about my friend) to a blank shrug. Sadly the reason (if there really is one) will be forgotten long before the criminal record is clear.
Being with a group that is involved with drugs is also a quick trip to trouble. It is not uncommon for officers to arrest everyone in a vehicle if they find drugs. Even if one person had no involvement or knowledge of the contraband, chances are there will be the arrest for drug possession, trip to jail, cost of a bond and probably an attorney before that information comes to light. Few weeks pass that a case of that nature is not brought to the County Attorney’s Office. The normal scenario involves four or five youth traveling together to a concert or on a fun trip getting pulled over for speeding or an equipment violation. Once stopped, there is at least one who (claims) no knowledge that the others were even carrying drugs. Contrary to what – at times - seems to be common belief in this age group, marijuana is an illegal drug!
There is a freedom that comes with completing high school or college. It is not only a matter of accomplishing what has been – up to now – ones life work, but also the feeling that you are ready to take your place in society and the community. The speaker at my high school commencement made the comment that we would never be as smart as we were that night. He was right – we knew everything and were ready to take on the world. In retrospect, we were naïve, headstrong and stubborn! As a result, few – if any – of us believed him at the time, although all of us believe him now! I was never as confident of what I knew than I was at that time.
This confidence and feeling of accomplishment is a good thing, but must be tempered with a little sense. While there may be a “temporary insanity” that accompanies the occasion, it is not one recognized by the courts! A certain caution is called for at this time to avoid serious, life long consequences.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .