Teen law-breakers: No minor issue

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 1, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
While a lot of young people are aware that they can’t legally get a tattoo in North Carolina until they’re 18, many don’t know that at 16, they’re considered adults by the judicial system.
In fact, North Carolina is the only state in the country where 16-year-olds are required to be tried as adults.
The ramifications of that can be “horrendous,” said Georgia attorney and author J.Tom Morgan during a recent phone interview. “At 16, you could have a criminal record for the rest of your life.”
Morgan has devoted much of his professional life to educating young people and their parents about how youthful misbehavior can have dire long-term consequences.
Morgan offers an example: a high school sophomore in North Carolina arrested for shoplifting will be treated like an adult in the legal system, whereas the same student living in Alabama would not be prosecuted as an adult until age 19, the typical age for a sophomore in college.
Along with Wilson Parker, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, Morgan has co-authored a new book called “Ignorance Is No Defense, A College Student’s Guide to North Carolina Law.”
Morgan made a name for himself years ago as a prosecutor in DeKalb County, Georgia. He was the first prosecutor in the state to specialize in the prosecution of crimes against children.
Now in private practice, he’s a nationally recognized expert on crimes involving young people. He’s appeared on CNN’s “Talk Back Live,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show, “Court TV,” “The Today Show” and “48 Hours.”
Morgan is in demand as a speaker, and frequently travels to North Carolina. He will speak next week with students and parents of Providence Day and Country Day schools in Charlotte.
At his presentations, Morgan doesn’t lecture teens about the law but shares stories about real cases involving young people.
He talks mostly about “SADs,” he says — Sex, Alcohol and Drugs — the three things mostly likely to get young people into trouble.
Because in North Carolina students are legally adults at 16, it’s particularly important that they understand the potential legal consequences of behavior that is often widely practiced and accepted.
Sexting, for example.
Morgan says that just last week he worked on three cases involving sexting — which is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photographs, primarily between mobile phones. These digital photographs, of course, can then be widely disseminated.
“Our laws have not kept up with technology or the cultural behavior of these young people,” says Morgan, who notes that sexting is even occurring among middle school students.
“When we wrote the child pornography laws, we never imagined that it would be teenagers sending it to each other,” he said.
Parents would undoubtedly be amazed and horrified to hear the examples that Morgan can cite — like the 17-year-old girl in high school whose 18-year-old college boyfriend convinced her to take her clothes off during a Skype conversation. The girl was unaware that others in his dorm room were also watching.
It’s possible, he said, that both the girl and her boyfriend could be charged with felonies under the child pornography laws as they exist and have to be registered as sex offenders.
As much as using the internet is second nature to young people, many still don’t understand the risks of sending racy pictures into cyberspace, even ones intended for one person only.
“Kids don’t realize, if they put it out there it can go viral,” Morgan says.
Although issues involving texting and the Internet loom large for young people, alcohol remains the biggest area of concern for students in high school and college, Morgan says.
Even Morgan, who spends a good chunk of time on the University of Georgia campus representing students who are in trouble with alcohol, was surprised to learn that 2,800 UGA students are on probation there for possession of alcohol.
North Carolina college students need to realize that although using a fake ID is a misdemeanor in many states, including Georgia, in North Carolina using a real ID that is not your own is a felony, which could lead to license revocation and actual jail time. A felony conviction can prevent a student from being admitted to some graduate schools or being hired for certain jobs.
Marijuana use is more common today than it was a generation ago, Morgan says, and students need to be aware that many judges and prosecutors will take a harsher view of the student in possession of a small amount of marijuana than one who has had a couple of beers.
Morgan’s personal view is that while the drinking age should not go back to 18 — which would allow older high school students to drink — he believes it should be lowered to 19 for beer and wine and 21 for liquor.
As someone who has spent his whole career in law enforcement, Morgan says he believes that the current drinking age creates disrespect for law enforcement.
“Kids view law enforcement as people out to get them for just having a beer,” he says.
He also believes that “withholding” alcohol actually creates problems — such as drinking to intoxication — that occur far less frequently in cultures where alcohol is legally available at younger ages.
When Morgan speaks to groups of young people and their parents, he realizes that they won’t ask revealing questions about personal issues, nor does he encourage them to do so. He does, however, invite them to post their questions on his FaceBook account.
Morgan says he gets on FaceBook nightly to answer students’ questions from 10 p.m. until midnight.
For more information about “Ignorance Is No Defense, A College Student’s Guide to North Carolina Law,” go to www.Ignorance IsNoDefense.com/nc.