As a criminal defense attorney, Robert Tucker has seen a lot of teenagers in trouble.
What troubles him is how little they and their parents know about the law and the serious, potentially life-long consequences their actions may have.
Tucker said one of the frustrating things about criminal defense work is people are already in trouble when he hears from them and there is only so much he can do at that point.
He knows “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You,” which is also the title of the first chapter of his new book: “What Every Teenager (and Every Parent) Should Know About New York Criminal Law.”
Most of the time teenagers know what they’re doing is wrong, but don’t think it is very serious. For instance, spray painting graffiti can easily elevate to a felony offense if the damage is more than $250. That may not seem like much, but the costs to repair the damage can easily exceed that. As an example, Tucker said it may cost a lot of money if the spray-painted building is brick and the owner needs to have it sand blasted to remove the writing.
His book includes many scenarios. There is a story about two 17-year-old wrestlers who are accused of being boyfriends by a loudmouthed football player. One of them finally confronts the football player who turns out to not be so tough and starts crying after being knocked to the ground.
The wrestlers laugh at him, call him a baby and one scoops up the football player’s hat as they walk away. Innocent school fight? Maybe just a generation ago, but not anymore. Because the wrestlers took the football player’s hat, which had been knocked off in the fray, they were charged with second-degree robbery — a Class C violent felony which carries a minimum state prison term of 3 ½ years.
“I saw a need for teenagers, especially, to learn about the law,” Tucker said. “Everyone is presumed to know the laws of New York state. Most people don’t know the laws, especially teenagers. They don’t have a grasp of what can turn a minor transgression into a serious offense. They routinely underestimate how serious the consequences are.”
He said they also often don’t understand that the punishment for certain crimes may be mandated by the Legislature, which is why some teenagers find themselves doing hard time for first offenses.
Youthful offender status, which allows records to be sealed for certain minor crimes, is automatically granted only once. It may not be considered in felonies or subsequent crimes.
The case that prompted Tucker to write the book involved a teenage boy who had been beaten up. His uncle and cousins were upset and went to the home of the other kid, beat him and damaged his house.
Tucker’s client accompanied them and since he was the only one recognized, he was the only one charged, even though he didn’t take part.
“It was uncontroverted at trial that he didn’t hit anybody, that he didn’t break anything,” Tucker said, but the boy is serving 5 ½ years in prison for first-degree burglary.
“After that case, I decided I’ve got to get this book written,” Tucker said. “Every other week, I see kids in serious situations that with a little bit of information, they might not be in that situation.”
Tucker said another mistake teenagers make is being present when their friends are committing a crime. They think they’re innocent because they don’t take part and don’t realize they can be charged as an accomplice.
Tucker said kids also don’t understand the difference between taking something like a bicycle from a shed or from a garage.
In the latter instance, an attached garage is considered part of the home, elevating what could be mischief or theft, in the instance of stealing from the shed, to a felony burglary charge. Tucker said entering and taking something from someone’s dorm room is also second-degree burglary.
“They understand they’re doing something wrong,” he said. “They just don’t understand how serious the consequences can be.”
Tucker said his book is about giving information to teenagers so they can make better decisions when they’re confronted with temptation. His advice is to walk away.
“I don’t try to preach,” he said. “I try to give them the information. I illustrate scenarios that routinely get them in trouble.”
Some of the more common incidents involve marijuana or sexting — sending or receiving sexually explicit photos — of one’s girlfriend or boyfriend.
Tucker said possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use is not a crime in New York. It is a violation, but giving a joint to a friend may constitute the elements of a more serious charge of selling drugs.
Sexting, on the other hand, he said, is a federal crime and if someone is caught with the sexually explicit photos of an under-age person, they may have to register as a sex offender. Tucker said it is the same as possessing child pornography.
“Kids may not think it’s a big deal until their girlfriend’s father finds it and goes down to the district attorney’s office and demands justice,” he said, noting people will look it up on the Internet, that it could affect future employment or years down the road, they may not be able to coach their children’s sports teams.
“You’re a pariah,” he said.
Shoplifting is another common teen crime, but if the thief struggles with security and leaves with the goods, he or she has just committed felony robbery. Tucker said if they drop the items they intended to take, it would reduce the charge to assault or harassment.
“The world is a different place,” said Tucker, noting he went to a large inner-city high school where there were many fights, but no one got arrested. “Nowadays, they’ll arrest you for acting up or yelling at a teacher. Part of it, I think, is having a police officer in school.”
He called having school resource officers a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they keep the schools safer, but said they’re investigating every little incident as a crime.
“Whether that’s a good thing or not is probably above my pay grade,” Tucker said.
In his book, Tucker discusses just about every type of crime, but murder. He also advises clients to invoke their right to remain silent and offers teens some additional thoughts.
He hopes his book, which he thinks every teenager should have, helps young people understand the law and stay out of trouble.
“Every week, I go into court and I see young people that are in trouble and their lives could be forever changed,” Tucker said. “I’m hoping to reduce that number.”
A native of Michigan, Tucker came to New York when he was still a teenager to work on his uncle’s farm. He loved the area and worked as a dairy farmer for several years before returning to Michigan with his wife Kathryn, also a Michigan native and an attorney, and their children.
Tucker taught middle school for a few years and earned a law degree at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., before the family headed back east, settling in Canandaigua. Tucker’s law office is in Palmyra. He has an undergraduate degree in animal science at Cornell University.
“The law always interested me,” Tucker said. “I taught for three years and really was not fulfilled with that. When you go to law school, you’re exposed to different kinds of law. You find an area that you enjoy. To this day, I enjoy the criminal stuff.”
The law also interests Tucker’s youngest child and his only remaining teenager — 18-year-old Dan. The Tuckers’ oldest child, Alyssia, just got married and Paul and Aubrey are in college. Aubrey helped edit the book, which is available on Amazon.com
Tucker is also available to talk to youth or youth-related groups about New York criminal law. He may be reached at (315) 759-9708.
He is also considering additions to include new laws and the possibility of writing a book that could be used nationally, instead of focusing on New York laws.