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Former DeKalb district attorney will speak to teens about Ga. laws and adult consequences

POSTED: April 3, 2012 1:30 a.m.

With local students out of school this week for spring break, many parents anticipate their children wanting to spend their free time hanging out with friends.

It’s the things they don’t anticipate that can cause major problems — even jail time.

J. Tom Morgan, the former district attorney of DeKalb County, knows all too well how childish pranks can lead to adult consequences.

"As a prosecutor for 21 years, I prosecuted a lot of kids who’d gotten into trouble. And when I opened my private practice, I started representing a lot of kids charged with misdemeanor crimes," Morgan said.

"I realized that one of two things was happening — either they didn’t know the laws or they didn’t appreciate the consequences of their actions."

To fulfill a "moral responsibility" to educate youth and their parents, Morgan penned a book — "Ignorance Is No Defense: A Teenager’s Guide to Georgia Law."

He’ll be discussing key points during a free event at 6:30 p.m. April 10 at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville. The goal of the presentation is to help teenagers avoid violating the law and becoming victims of crimes.

Two of the top issues that bring kids into his office these days are minor possession of alcohol and marijuana, Morgan says.

Depending on where the incident takes place can determine whether or not your child is arrested immediately.

"In Clarke County, the (minor) would be arrested, taken to jail and booked immediately," Morgan said.

"But in many counties, they would just be given a ticket to come to court."

Once the arrest is on your minor’s record, there’s the additional hassle of getting their records expunged once they become of age.

Although many teenagers realize that consuming alcohol as a minor is against the law, they may not realize that a joy ride in car where alcohol is present is just as illegal.

"Everybody (in the vehicle) is responsible, not just the backseat passenger who brought it," Morgan said.

Being in possession of a fake ID can be just as problematic. In some instances, the possession is a felony while in others, it’s a misdemeanor.

"A 19-year-old college student uses a fake driver’s license with the (Georgia state logo) to rent a car for a weekend excursion," reads an example scenario in Morgan’s book.

"The student then drives to a liquor store and uses the fake ID to purchase alcohol. The student will be charged with a felony for using the ID to rent the car, punishable by 1 to 5 years imprisonment, and a misdemeanor for using the ID to purchase the alcohol — punishable by imprisonment up to 12 months."

Morgan’s book covers a number of topics that teenagers may not realize could get them into trouble — including being in possession of someone else’s prescription drugs.

"Ignorance Is No Defense" also offers insight into the rights of teenagers during an arrest, search and seizure. Morgan also offers suggestions for what teens should do if they are summoned to court.

The book has an entire section devoted to sex crimes like statutory rape. Although parents may not be comfortable discussing such topics, it should be a point of discussion in all households, Morgan says.

The legal age of consent to sexual contact is 16 years old in Georgia.

"The crime of statutory rape occurs when a person has sexual intercourse with a person under 16 years old," Morgan explains in his book.

"Consent — permission and willingness — to sexual intercourse is irrelevant."

Statutory rape is a felony that can be punished by one to 20 years in jail. If the underage participant is at least 14 and the defendant is 18 or younger or not more than four years older, then the crime would be a misdemeanor.

Even if both parties are underage, that doesn’t create an exemption to prosecution. In his book, Morgan uses the example of two 15-year-olds having sexual intercourse. Both parties are guilty of misdemeanor statutory rape.

"That’s based on an actual case," Morgan said.

"In most states, consensual sex between teens isn’t a crime, but in Georgia it still is. If it involves oral sex, they could both be charged as adults, but they’d be charged as juveniles if it was only sexual intercourse.

"I always tell kids, if the laws don’t make sense, don’t shoot the messenger. I don’t make the laws, but we need to take a hard look at some of them."

During his talk next week, Morgan plans to hit a few hot-topic items, including drugs, alcohol and how the impact of various laws affects young people as they reach certain birthday milestones.

He suggests that parents use the book to start a dialogue with their children.

"I always say a good way to approach this is to have the kids and parents both read a chapter at a time and then have a frank discussion without being judgmental," Morgan said.

"These are important topics. Being ignorant of the law isn’t a defense."


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