This is not a joke

Published 11:03 am Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Conviction for making a threat can ruin a young life

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

A teenager’s online post threatening school violence is a felony — a conviction that can have lifelong consequences.

Having a felony “radically reduces their earning capacity during their lifetime,” said Isle of Wight County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Edwards of a youth convicted with that level of criminal activity.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Edwards ticked off the areas in which a felony conviction touches — job and college applications, scholarship applications, as well as voting rights, and the ability to purchase and own a gun. 

“Those (juvenile) records used to be sacrosanct, but they’re not now,” said Edwards. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Recently, a 17-year old Smithfield High School student was arrested and charged with a felony for posting a threat to shoot up the school on Snapchat. 

The teen was joined by a few others in the Hampton Roads area — under age 18 — who were arrested last week for making online copycat threats in the wake of the Florida high school shooting that left 17 dead. 

In the case of the Smithfield student, no evidence was found that indicated he could carry out the threat, according to the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office. 

Isle of Wight Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips said monitoring social media accounts is now routine during an investigation, but juveniles still think they can’t be caught. 

In Isle of Wight County, law enforcement officers have received special training in computer forensics to aid in solving cyber crimes, Phillips said. 

In some cases, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses are traced to track down the subscriber and location of an offender, and in other cases, a perpetrator is revealed through old-fashioned word-of-mouth, Phillips said. 

Edwards said that while legislators pass Internet crime laws to deal with big threats such as Al-Qaeda or terrorists, those laws also apply to teens.

It’s not illegal to threaten to hit someone face-to-face, but if it’s done through a text or online, it becomes a crime, said Edwards. 

And with teens, “their whole lives are on social media,” said Phillips.

Locked up

An Isle of Wight County teen facing charges is handcuffed, arrested and taken to the juvenile facility in Chesapeake, said Edwards. 

There the teen waits until the next juvenile court day in the Fifth Circuit. The trial date is set at 15 days from arrest, but depending on the type of evidence and the schedule of the various agencies processing it, the time in detention can drag on for quite some time, Edwards said.

After 15 days, a judge can order a teen be placed in a group home or sent home with electronic monitoring, but it depends upon the situation, he said. 

A juvenile can also be tried as an adult — automatically with some crimes — or the result of a petition by prosecutors in others, said Edwards. 

The future

Ultimately, the goal of the juvenile court system is to rehabilitate a youth and get him or her back on track. Oftentimes the court will allow a youthful offender to work off the felony charge through various programs and improved behavior, which can lead to a misdemeanor or a dismissal, said Edwards. 

Edwards said that in most cases, the offender is given community service or some other sanction or treatment and he or she does not return. 

Others do not seem to grasp how serious the whole business is, said Edwards. 

Other times, being sent to juvenile court can reveal underlying issues that may have caused the behavior in the first place and that can then be addressed, Phillips.

Sadly, teens convicted of felonies are not rare, Phillips said.

The kids don’t realize the seriousness of a felony charge and it’s not confined to big crimes, like murder, said Edwards. It can be for crimes such as destruction of property, drugs or taking a parent’s car for an extended amount of time without permission, which can become grand larceny, said Edwards. 

And those charges remain on their record into adulthood.

“The consequences can haunt them,” said Phillips.  {/mprestriction}