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When Do You Need a Juvenile Defense Attorney?

Hiring a juvenile defense attorney is essential for a person under 18 with a pending case in the juvenile court system. The attorney knows the court system and can advise the minor on the legal options. In Minnesota, if a minor engages in an illegal activity, the case will get resolved through civil rather than criminal proceedings. These proceedings seek to legally hold the minor responsible for engaging in the alleged activity and rehabilitate the minor.

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Some examples of juvenile crimes include disturbing the peace, shoplifting, and alcohol or drug possession and intoxication. 

Common Types of Juvenile Crimes  

The juvenile law definition in Minnesota applies to a person in the age range of 10 and 17 years accused of engaging in illegal activity. It has different statutes and penalties for minors accused of committing a crime compared to adults who do the same. 

Juvenile crimes can either be felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the facts surrounding the situation. Juvenile crime examples include 

  • Drug possession
  • Theft from a place of work
  • Shoplifting
  • Alcohol intoxication or possession
  • Underage drinking and driving
  • Obstruction of justice and disturbing the peace

When Is a Minor Charged as an Adult?

Minors are not tried as adults in Minnesota, as juvenile crime laws are different from adult ones. Even when facing felonies, which are serious charges that attract harsher penalties, cases involving minors get heard in a juvenile court. In such cases, accused minors must work with a felony lawyer to improve their odds of getting a favorable result.

The child’s age, criminal history, and the type of crime allegedly committed help determine the filing of charges and the potential penalties. The only time a minor gets treated as an adult for allegedly engaging in illegal activity is when the minor commits murder, has previous convictions of adult crimes, and is approved for the presumptive and discretionary waiver.

A child who is 16 years or older can face adult charges when accused of murder. Murder is a heinous crime under Minnesota criminal law, whether committed by a minor or an adult. If the minor also had convictions of an offense in an adult court in the past, an adult court will hear the case. 

Prosecutors usually file a discretionary waiver, requesting the court to treat minors 14 years or older and charged with any offense as adults. Prosecutors can also file a presumptive waiver for the court to treat minors 16 years or older accused of a serious offense as adults.

Courts and prosecutors in Minnesota have the legal discretion to weigh the unique circumstances of the alleged crime and charge a minor as an adult. Prosecutors also tend to request the court to classify minors as adults when they commit violent or sex crimes, felonies involving firearms, or crimes with prison sentences as penalties when the accused person is an adult. 

What Happens Before a Minor Is Tried as an Adult?

Minnesota law gives minors the legal right to certification hearings that help determine if the case should proceed to an adult court. During the certification hearing, the court weighs the facts of the case. 

Only parties with a special interest in the case, like the prosecution team, are allowed in certification hearings. The hearings also allow minors to have a juvenile lawyer by their side to present witnesses, evidence, and defenses and interview or cross-examine the prosecutor’s witnesses. 

The Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction

As a dual-sanction program, the Minnesota Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction initiative seeks to rehabilitate minors facing charges on serious offenses. It specifically attends to juveniles who are 14 years old and discharges them once they are 21 years old. 

The child has to prove that he or she will be a law-abiding citizen before getting discharged. If the child fails to adhere to the court orders, the child risks going to prison after getting prosecuted as an adult. Minors accused of sex crimes, carjacking, weapon charges, aggravated robbery, and murder/attempted murder are eligible for this program. 

The Minnesota Juvenile Criminal Process

In Minnesota, juvenile criminal justice begins when an individual under 18 gets accused of engaging in an illegal activity. The child’s case gets heard in a court in the same county where the offense allegedly happened. Disposition and sentencing will, however, occur in the county where the minor lives. 

Juvenile cases have no jury members. Instead, they rely on a judge, whose primary role is to weigh the arguments presented and decide whether the minor is delinquent. Juvenile cases use the term “delinquent” rather than guilty to imply that the prosecution team succeeded in proving that the minor committed an offense. 

The Minnesota juvenile justice system goes through several stages, including:

Referral (Arrest) for Delinquent Behavior and Intake (Diversion)

Law enforcement officers quickly dismiss minor cases of delinquent behaviors like in-school fights and illegal house parties. They, however, arrest minors who engage in delinquent behaviors with a significant impact to society, like shoplifting, reckless or drunk driving, and disturbing the peace. 

Minors enter the Minnesota juvenile justice system following a referral or arrest. Although police officers initiate most referrals, parents, educators, community members, and alleged crime victims may refer minors to the juvenile justice system. The minor has Miranda rights during the referral or arrest, regardless of who initiates it. 

After a minor gets referred to the system, intake officers working at the probation agency or juvenile court will determine the fate of the case. Attorneys aligned with the prosecutor also have a say in this decision. Their work is to decide whether the case will be heard out of court (informally), processed in court (formally), or dismissed. 

Transfer or Waiver

If the minor faces serious charges, he or she will be waived or transferred from the juvenile justice system to the adult criminal court system to await trial. Minnesota laws support the transfer decision.

Detention and Adjudication 

A judge decides the minor will be detained pending the adjudication hearing when the child is considered a flight risk or a danger to the community for a case heard in a juvenile court. The judge may also allow the minor to stay at home during this period. These decisions are made during a special detention hearing before the 24 hours of referral or arrest elapses. 

During adjudication, the court may adjudicate the minor as delinquent or innocent. The child’s lawyer can also negotiate a plea agreement with conditions like supervised informal probation. However, if the hearing happens, the judge’s ruling will reflect the evidence and arguments defense attorneys and prosecutors present. 


A disposition hearing comes after the judge finds the minor delinquent. It is the equivalent of the sentencing hearing in the adult criminal court system. Before the disposition, the probation officer must review the case, interview the minor, and formulate a suitable intervention plan. 

Afterward, the judge will assess the plan and allow the prosecution team and the child’s family to present further input before giving a disposition. Judges sentence most minors who are adjudicated delinquent to residential placement or supervised probation. 

Possible Dispositions for Minors Adjudicated Delinquent in Minnesota

Minnesota statute for juvenile offenses lays out the possible dispositions for minors adjudicated delinquent. The dispositions for serious crimes include:

  • Supervised probation (handled by a probation officer)
  • Counseling
  • Transfer of legal custody to authorized agencies
  • Paying a fine of up to $1,000 and restitution to the crime victim
  • Commission to the juvenile corrections system or revocation of driver’s license until the age of 18
  • Getting handled as an adult sex offender

Petty juvenile crimes have less strict dispositions. In particular, the judge may order the offender to pay a fine of up to $100, participate in a drug awareness program or community service, and undergo a chemical dependency evaluation. Other dispositions for petty offenses include participation in court-mandated treatments, restitution to the crime victims, and a probation term of up to 6 months. 

Can a Juvenile Offender in Minnesota Be Sentenced to Prison?

A minor will be subject to the juvenile court’s jurisdiction when adjudicated delinquent (found guilty). The juvenile court will have the discretion to choose an appropriate disposition (sentencing) for the minor. 

The closest thing to a prison in the juvenile justice system is the juvenile detention center, also known as Juvenile Hall. Juvenile offenders are usually committed to this facility until they reach the age of 21, depending on the disposition.

However, if the court tries the minor as an adult, the minor may face a prison sentence. It has to be proved that hearing the case in a juvenile court will not serve the best interests of the public’s safety.

When to Hire a Juvenile Defense Attorney

The uncertainty in the outcomes of a juvenile case increases the need for a juvenile defense lawyer. A good juvenile lawyer is trained to identify elements of the juvenile case that stand out and prepare a defense strategy for the minor. During the trial, the attorney’s role is to present arguments to the judge that are against the prosecutor’s allegations and back them up with concrete evidence. 

The various legal concepts surrounding the juvenile justice system require someone with a deep understanding of the law. Having an attorney represent a minor can benefit the juvenile case in the following ways:

Navigating the Juvenile Justice System

The Minnesota Bar Association has strict requirements for lawyers who are seeking admission. One of these requirements is the possession of a Juris Doctor (JD), indicating that someone has studied the law and court procedures. 

Juvenile lawyers are usually tasked with defending their clients and determining if there are inconsistencies in a case against the accused. Their role is to also inform their clients about the key players in the juvenile justice system and the roles each one of them plays. 

Since each jurisdiction has certain rules and procedures to be followed when a minor is accused of engaging in an illegal activity, the lawyer needs to guide the client on these rules. Minors cannot represent themselves in a trial and are allowed by the court to seek legal support and representation. 

 Negotiations and Decision-Making 

Juvenile cases involve a lot of decision-making and negotiations. These activities help determine whether a trial for the minor will happen in the juvenile justice system or the adult criminal court system. They also help determine the type of dispositions a juvenile offender will be given when adjudicated delinquent. 

Plea bargains require the help of a lawyer, since prosecutors are usually after harsher penalties. An attorney must review the plea deal, advise the client about available options, and help the client choose the best option based on his or her unique legal situation.

The role of an attorney is to weigh the risks and benefits of every negotiation or decision-making process in the juvenile justice system. Accused minors need to understand these risks and benefits with the help of their attorneys to make an informed decision. 

Access to Important Resources 

Evidence gathering is an essential part of the juvenile justice process. It allows the child’s attorney to collect evidence and witness statements to be the basis for the defenses presented in court. However, finding these pieces of evidence without a lawyer’s help is hard. 

A lawyer has to unmask the identity of the witnesses and approach them for statements on behalf of the client. The lawyer should know the appropriate approaches for interviewing witnesses and getting them to speak about an alleged crime. 

A lawyer affiliated with third parties, such as investigators, can look into the circumstances of the case. The role of an investigator is to establish patterns in the alleged crime that will help the lawyer build a defense strategy. The lawyer can also work with expert witnesses to offer a more educated opinion of the investigations. 

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

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