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When Your Child Needs a Lawyer

by: Matt Keenan, JD

Death threats. Tasteless jokes. Sexually explicit photos. In recent years, both schools and courts have seen a surge in cases that may spring from Facebook, blog entries, and text messages. Parents need to be aware that comments meant in jest can lead to the filing of criminal charges.

Worse still, the transmission of sexually explicit photos of people under the age of 18 can be grounds for felony charges. In some instances, judges have ruled that a lewd and lascivious display of genitalia can constitute a criminal defense even when the body parts in question are not fully exposed.

As such, it is critical that teenagers be told just how dangerous it can be to transmit threatening or sexually explicit material online. There is also no guarantee that problems arising from events related to the school will stay at the school. Indeed, administrators who once preferred to keep misbehavior out of the media at all costs now find that calling in the police is anything but a last resort. And in a media-saturated era, high school pranks that would once have barely merited a mention in the local paper can go around the world.

If the police are called, detectives generally will seek interviews with all of the implicated students. And while the detectives often assert that only juvenile court proceedings are likely to be initiated, they are not necessarily the ones who make the final decision about how a case is prosecuted. Parents with children under investigation should bear in mind that a felony or misdemeanor conviction could result in their children missing out on college admission and job opportunities.

Detectives with experience in dealing with teenagers often adopt a “sweet and sour” approach to elicit confessions, making threats even as they urge young people to “be nice” and tell everything they know. They may also seek permission to confiscate computers.

Experts in criminal law agree, however, that cooperating fully with police investigations may lead to grave consequences. “The individual under investigation ought to always say ‘I refuse to speak to the police until I have my attorney present,’” says Joel Kessler, a criminal defense attorney in Chicago. Requests to confiscate personal computers should be rebuffed, Kessler asserts. “If the police don’t have a subpoena, you shouldn’t let them look at your computer at all. Even if they say they’re just looking for one specific thing, it tends to become a fishing expedition.”

In the event that a school problem takes on the appearance of a criminal law issue, a qualified attorney should be contacted immediately. Besides helping to prevent your child from making statements that could incriminate him or her later, an experienced attorney can help craft your child’s defense. If there is a codefendant, the attorney might be able to work out an immunity deal in exchange for your child’s testimony. Even if a guilty verdict is an overwhelming likelihood, an attorney can seek a less severe punishment.

Matt Keenan is an experienced school law attorney in the Chicago area. His practice includes school residency, cybercrime, academic disciplinary issues and criminal law. For more information, visit his website,

The information provided is not intended to be legal advice, but merely conveys general information related to legal issues commonly encountered. If you need legal advice, please contact a lawyer.