In the eyes of the law, parents are responsible for their teen's actions

Parents of teens may be surprised to find they have both more rights — teens can't get a driver's license without a parent's permission, for example — and more responsibilities than they realized. Until children turn 18, parents can be held liable for many of their teen's actions, from skipping school to causing a car accident to hosting a wild party.

"I think parents are so in the dark about their rights, their child's rights and their obligations," said Simmie Baer, attorney supervisor of the juvenile division of The Defender Association. "The legal system is a big black hole to most parents, no matter how astute they are."

While this doesn't replace an attorney's advice, here's a heads-up on some legal issues for parents of adolescents.

Can my 16-year-old get a driver's license even though I don't think he should be allowed to drive?

No. A minor's application for a driver's license or a motorcycle endorsement must be signed by a parent or guardian with custody of the minor. Additionally, newly licensed 16- and 17-year-old drivers:

• Must have had a learner's permit for six months, passed a road test and a driver's education class and had 50 hours of supervised driving.

• May not have teenage friends in the car for six months. After that, no more than three are permitted.

• May not drive between 1 and 5 a.m. for the first six months without a parent in the car.

If teens are not involved in an automobile accident and don't receive a ticket for a year, they can drive without restrictions.

What happens if my teen keeps getting traffic tickets?

The first time a teen with an intermediate license commits an offense, parents will get a warning letter. The second time, the teen's license is suspended for six months. On a third conviction, the license is suspended until the driver turns 18.

Am I responsible for a car accident by my teen?

Most likely. The "family car doctrine" means that a child's parents are responsible if the child causes an accident while driving a family car, said Robin Aronson, a claims attorney for State Farm. A family car is usually considered any vehicle owned and maintained by parents, even if teens are the primary drivers. It's unlawful for minors (unless emancipated) to be the registered or legal owner of any motor vehicle. It's also against the law to sell a car to a minor.

Insurance costs also skyrocket if a teen gets a ticket or is involved in even a minor accident.

My child is hanging around with questionable friends; could he get in trouble even if he doesn't actively commit a crime?

Possibly. For example: Taking a motor vehicle without permission is a class C felony, and a passenger can be held equally accountable "if he or she voluntarily rides in or upon the automobile or motor vehicle with knowledge of the fact that the automobile or motor vehicle was unlawfully taken."

"Whether they go for a joy ride or steal a car, they're just as much on the hook for damage," said Seattle attorney Kenneth Bromet.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Maryland v. Pringle, authorizes a police officer who finds contraband (such as drugs) in a car to arrest every occupant if no one admits to owning it.

What if she hosts a party at our house that we didn't know about and someone gets hurt?

"Parents are liable for the actions of their teen, and a property owner is deemed in control of his property," even if not present, said Nancy Carpenter, public-affairs specialist with State Farm. For example, if a teen hosts a party and an attendee drives home drunk and causes an accident, the property owner could be held legally liable, even if the parent didn't authorize the party, she said.

My teen signed a contract but now changed his mind. Can he get out of it?

Yes, as long as he is still under age 18. State law says only adults age 18 and older can enter into a legal contract. There are some exceptions: Minors cannot cancel contracts they make for necessities, such as medical attention and housing. If a minor misrepresents his age or conducts business as an adult, he is bound by contracts. Teens age 16 and up also cannot cancel education loans.

Can my 17-year-old get a tattoo?

Not legally, even with your permission. State law says that "every person who applies a tattoo to any minor under the age of 18 is guilty of a misdemeanor." Relying on the teen's word or his or her apparent age is not enough.

Could my high-school senior get in trouble for dating a freshman?

Perhaps, depending on their respective ages and sexual relationship. A person at least 48 months older can be charged with third-degree rape of child for having sexual intercourse with a 14- or 15-year-old, regardless of consent.

For victims age 12 to 13, the age gap narrows to 36 months and goes up to rape of a child in the second degree, regardless of consent.

Can my teenager decide which parent to live with after a divorce?

Some states mandate a certain age at which judges must consider a child's input. In Washington, if a child is "of sufficient age and maturity to express an opinion," his wishes are one of seven factors considered when determining where he lives. The strength and stability of a child's relationship with each parent is given the most weight. The court may appoint an attorney to represent the interests of a minor or dependent child with respect to custody, support, and visitation, with the cost paid by parents.

Can I get in trouble if my teen skips school?

Possibly. State law requires schools to file a truancy petition in juvenile court if a student has five unexcused absences in a month or 10 in a year. The court can order parents to pay a fine of up to $25 for each day of unexcused absence from school or to perform community service.

What can I do if my child is suspended or expelled from school?

Request a hearing in writing as soon as you receive a notice. Timelines are very short — usually three school business days, according to Team Child, a Seattle nonprofit that helps youth in the juvenile justice system with education issues. Students and their families have a right to be represented by legal counsel.

Parents can download a free education advocacy manual for Washington schools at www.teamchild.org.

What can I do if my teen is out of control?

File an at-risk youth (ARY) petition. This can be done without a lawyer, though your child will receive a court-appointed attorney. A facilitator can answer questions about the forms and process but will not offer legal advice. Only parents can file ARY petitions.

To qualify, youth must be under 18 and meet at least one of three requirements:

• Be absent from home for at least 72 consecutive hours without parental consent.

• Be beyond parental control such that his/her behavior endangers the health, safety, or welfare of the child or any other person.

• Has a substance-abuse problem for which there are no pending criminal charges.

After a fact-finding hearing, the court may require the child to, for example: Attend school regularly; seek counseling; participate in a substance abuse or mental-health outpatient treatment program; get a job; or participate in an anger-management program.

The order will not involuntarily commit a child for substance abuse or mental-health treatment.

The court may also order the parent to participate in counseling or other services. Under penalty of contempt, the parent must take the necessary steps to help implement the case plan. Parents are financially responsible for costs related to the court-ordered plan, including counseling and drug/alcohol treatment.

If either parent or child fails to comply with an order, it is considered civil contempt of court, with fines up to $100 and confinement for up to seven days. If a child ordered to live at home runs away, the court may order law enforcement to pick up and take the child to detention.

The parent may request dismissal of an at-risk youth proceeding or out-of-home placement at any time.

A Child in Need of Services (CHINS) petition, which can be filed by the parent, child or DSHS, asks the court to place a child outside a parent's home. Upon filing of a petition, DSHS may place the child in a crisis residential center, foster family home or licensed group home facility.

How much could I be held liable for if my child shoplifts, steals or is convicted of a crime?

Potentially, quite a bit.

Parents of a minor living at home can be held civilly liable for up to $5,000 if children destroy or deface property or willfully injure a person. This is separate from the restitution a minor may be required to pay as part of a criminal conviction.

If a minor shoplifts, a custodial parent can be responsible for the retail value of the item as well as a civil penalty of $100 to $200, plus the shop owner's attorney fees. Even if parents pay this penalty, children still face criminal prosecution.

A child charged with a crime will automatically receive a public defender, with parents responsible for fees. Even though parents are footing the bill, a teen's private discussions with an attorney are confidential, Baer said.

If a minor child is sent to a juvenile institution, parents may be required to pay up to 18 percent of their gross income toward the cost of their child's support, treatment and confinement. This is calculated on a sliding scale ranging from nothing for parents on public assistance to 18 percent for a parent with no other dependents making more than $3,001 a month.

If a parent fails to provide a financial statement, the reimbursement obligation is $2,300 a month. The state can file a liens against the parent's personal property or garnish wages.

Parents are exempt from payment if they or their children were victims of the crime that sent the teen to the juvenile institution.

If I call the police to scare my teen, I can just drop the charges later, right?

Not necessarily. Baer said she sees many cases where a teen gets into a physical altercation with a parent and the parent calls the police to scare the child. But state law requires mandatory arrest of the perpetrator in domestic-violence cases.

"Parents are often shocked at what they set in motion," said Baer. "Parents come to court and say, 'I didn't want it to go this far. I just wanted the police to tell my kid it wasn't OK.' " First offenses of misdemeanor crimes — including fourth-degree assault — automatically go to diversion (which means the teen may be ordered to do community service, pay restitution and/or attend counseling in lieu of prosecution).

Can police question my teen without my permission?

Yes, if the child is over age 12. If parents have the opportunity, Baer advises them to consult with a lawyer before taking a teen to speak with police. Doing so is exercising a constitutional right, not admitting guilt, she said. "The criminal system can be difficult to understand," she said.

Will the record of my teen's crime automatically seal when the time limitation runs out?

No. Baer advises parents or adults convicted of crimes as juveniles to seek legal advice on how to seal criminal records.

Just as with an adult conviction, class C felonies, such as car theft, remain on a person's record for five years, while class B felonies, such as second-degree burglary, cannot be sealed for 10 years. A legislative bill this session strives to lower those time limits for juvenile offenders, Baer said. Class A felonies and sex offenses are never removed, "no matter how young the offender," she said.

Sources: www.leg.wa.gov/rcw; www.law.washington.edu/streetlaw/supplement.html; www.metrokc.gov/kcsc/chins.htm#ary