One of the most common juvenile crimes that I see are juvenile car burglaries. These frequently happen in neighborhoods where kids may be walking around at night and trying to open up unlocked cars looking for loose change or cigarettes. Kids call this crime CAR HOPPING. Usually these types of crimes are harmless and the kids who do this certainly don’t think it is a big deal. The cars are unlocked so there is no damage and they rarely take factory installed items like stereos or speakers. But sometimes, the innocent search of change in an unlocked car might reveal a computer, Ipad, cell phone, GPS, or worse yet – a gun. This is when the owners of the property will report the theft, otherwise, they probably would not notice some missing change. Although you and I might not think this is the crime of the year, car burglaries – legally called Burglary of an unoccupied conveyance – is a third degree felony – punishable by up to 5 years in PRISON if the child is charged as an adult. Parents frequently say to me – “But he only took less than a dollar in change!” I know, however it doesn’t matter the amount or what was taken, the point is that the child went into someone else’s property, without permission, and committed a theft. (Burglary is legally defined as entering and committing any crime, not just theft) And if the child enters the car, and someone is stupid enough to leave their personal gun in the car, and he takes that gun, the third degree felony becomes an armed burglary, which is punishable by LIFE.
So unless something of value is taken from the car, many car burglaries go unreported. And even when the car burglary is reported, it is often difficult for the police to catch anyone. So how do the police catch the kids? Fingerprints. Usually, or I would hope, when a victim calls the police on a car burglary, someone should come take a report, and usually some forensic person will come take prints of the inside and outside of the car. (This is what usually happens in the cases I have handled, although I have talked to plenty of victims who say that neither a police officer or a forensic examiner ever came to the home to take a report) But if there are fingerprints that can be retrieved, and they don’t match the homeowner or any occupant sof the car, AND if the thief’s fingerprints are on file – then usually the police can make an arrest.
But here’s the interesting part – just because the police matched the fingerprints to someone, and that person did not have permission to be in the car, and there are things missing from the car – FINGERPRINTS alone are not enough to get a conviction on a burglary charge. Why not? Because unless there is some way to prove that those prints were put there at the time the theft occurred (or obviously unless there aren’t’ any witness, co-defendant snitching, or other evidence) there is REASONABLE DOUBT as to when those prints got on or in the car.
In a recent Second DCA case out of Tampa, FL, a juvenile was arrested and ultimately went to trial on a burglary in a car. The only direct evidence the State presented at trial were the juvenile’s fingerprints found on a newspaper inside of the car. There was no evidence of when or where or how that newspaper got into the car, and thus no way to prove that the prints on the newspaper were put there while the paper was in the car. Obviously the prints could have been on the newspaper before it was in the car. Maybe the kid was the newspaper delivery boy, or he otherwise touched the paper at another time. So because there was no way of proving when the fingerprints were put on the newspaper, the appellate court said there was not enough evidence to convict the child of burglary.
I talk to many parents about crimes like these and one of the worst things you, as a parent, can do when your child is being, or about to be, questioned by the police, is agree to it, let the police into his or her room to search it, and tell your child to “just tell the truth”. I am NOT advocating lying. I am merely telling you, as a parent, that although you are 100% certain there is nothing illegal in the child’s room, or that he or she definitely wouldn’t commit a crime like this – on the rare chance that you are wrong, the consequences are irreversible . Trust me. So, even if you are right, and I hope that you are, don’t let the police into his bedroom to search. There may be something else in there! Call me. I routinely answer questions for parents about their rights and the rights of their children – for free. And if you find yourself in a position where you didn’t follow the above advice, call me.