Press-Republican

March 6, 2013

'Stupid' doesn't excuse criminal behavior

By PENNY CLUTE
Press-Republican

---- — Time after time, young people with no prior arrests are charged with crimes for doing something “stupid” while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

All too common examples in downtown Plattsburgh are stealing or damaging street signs or property from a homeowner’s lawn or porch. If the damage costs more than $250 to repair, the charge is a felony.

Every year, courts see cases where kids were so drunk they went into the wrong house. They were looking for a friend or going to a party but instead went into the house of a stranger. 

Drunk intruders have been found asleep on the couch and in upstairs bedrooms or cooking in the kitchen. This “stupidity” frightens the people living there, and the intruders can be charged with criminal trespass.

CRIMINAL ACTS

Other times, people get into a fight or are making so much noise that neighbors call the police. 

They make their situation worse by arguing, or physically interfering, with the officer. Frequently, they have a marijuana pipe in their pockets; the residue in the pipe is charged as unlawful possession of marijuana.

These behaviors of everyday life aren’t just embarrassing; they are criminal acts. Sometimes, people know full well what they did; other times, they do not remember anything.

Once they are in court, they want the judge to know that their bad behavior was “a mistake” or “poor judgment” and not indicative of who they really are. 

Clearly, they did indeed make mistakes and exercise poor judgment, but that does not mean what they did was not a crime. Nor does it mean that getting intoxicated excuses criminal behavior.

IN HANDCUFFS

Crimes have many consequences for the people committing them. The immediate impact is being put in handcuffs and arrested. You might remain locked up if you cannot afford bail or do not qualify for the pre-trial release program.

If you are convicted of either a misdemeanor or felony, there are more consequences. 

In addition to your sentence of a fine, jail and/or probation, you will have a criminal conviction for the rest of your life.

New York does not have a law allowing expungement of criminal convictions after a period of law-abiding behavior. Even if you stay crime-free for 25 years, a criminal conviction from long ago remains on your record. 

All criminal convictions in New York require a DNA sample from the defendant.

YOUTHFUL OFFENDER

In New York, you are an adult for criminal prosecution purposes at the age of 16. If you were younger than 16 when you did the crime, your case goes to Family Court, and you do not have a criminal record, nor a DNA requirement. However, beginning with your 16th birthday, you are prosecuted as an adult. 

The most serious crimes can be prosecuted at a younger age.

At ages 16 through 18, a person is eligible to be a youthful offender, or YO, meaning that you will not have a conviction or DNA order but can still be sentenced to jail or probation. 

You are entitled to YO treatment only if you are facing your first misdemeanor conviction. In all other cases, whether to grant YO status is in the judge’s discretion.

Even if the district attorney allows criminal defendants to plead guilty to a lower charge so they will not have a conviction, the original arrest may still be on their record. Future schools and employers may be able to see it; financial aid may be affected. 

FUTURE AT RISK

In addition, background checks are much more common and extensive than in the past. Some potential employers, including the military and law enforcement, will not consider your application unless you consent to letting them view all records, even those that were sealed. 

The marijuana charge from the pot pipe is considered a drug offense for college financial aid, even though it is a non-criminal violation under New York law. It might also keep you from entering Canada and other countries.

As City Court judge, I saw many high-school and college students charged with crimes, who, along and their parents, were frightened and shocked at the legal consequences of their acts. They didn’t see themselves as criminals, but that is how they behaved.

The future they planned could be thrown away by acting impulsively or while under the influence.

Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.