By Stefano L. Molea
In the last six months there have been a number of news reports in San Diego County and all over the country regarding juveniles being arrested and charged with threatening to shoot up a school.
These kids are mostly being charged with a felony violation of Penal Code section 422, also known as “criminal threats.” In most circumstances, the child makes an off-hand comment about “shooting up the school” in an attempt at humor, or posts something on social media with a sarcastic or facetious tone — take a look at the bizarre hashtag #dontcometoschooltomorrow on various social media platforms, as an example.
The prosecuting agency wants to conduct its due diligence to insure that an actual threat never really existed and to maintain public confidence. In light of what has been seen in the media, no government or law enforcement entity wants to be in the headlines for not taking action when it had an opportunity. Based on matters that I have personally handled, the majority of these cases result in charges being filed “just in case.”
With the right approach, a plan can be developed to allow the minor an opportunity to have the case dismissed following classes, counseling, community service, etc. But the experience for the minor is not a walk in the park. In some cases it results in detention within juvenile hall and a whole lot of stress and anxiety, all of which could have been avoided if someone had removed them, just for a moment, from their teenage world full of ironic hashtags, memes and unconventional humor.
Most kids charged knew better and just got caught up in social interactions, losing sight of when a joke goes too far or is insensitive. Of course, there is the First Amendment issue and the question of whether the prosecuting agency is going too far in trying to teach kids a lesson in cases where it is reasonably apparent that no threat really existed or was intended. Regardless, the minor may end up forced into the delinquency system.
So, as a criminal defense attorney who has represented minors in such cases, save your money and save the anxiety: talk to your kids about not joking around with the subject of school shootings.
As a defense attorney, I will always fight to protect their rights, but I would rather not have to because I have seen the stress the system causes on a young mind — and the minds of those that may think the “threat” is real.