Courting Trouble

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- As part of a new tough Missouri law designed to discourage minors from smoking, children caught lighting up are being summoned to court alongside adult theft and assault suspects.

The smoking law, enacted last August, made it illegal for those younger than 18 to possess tobacco products -- not just to buy them, as had previously been the law.

The new infraction carried with it a fine of up to $200, court costs, confiscation of the tobacco and, for repeat offenders, the potential of mandatory courses about the dangers of tobacco use, the Associated Press reported.

In some places, the law is being strictly enforced. For example, in Boone County last week, a 12-year-old girl and eight teen-agers appeared in court for possessing tobacco.

Unlike juveniles charged in most other types of non-traffic offenses, the youths appeared in open court, in the same courtroom as adult offenders, their names and cases part of the public record. Missouri's revised tobacco law gives jurisdiction to adult courts.

Seven of the nine, all accompanied by their mothers, pleaded guilty in their first appearance in court, the report said. Associate Circuit Judge Larry Bryson fined them each $25 plus $84.50 in court costs. Two other teens were scheduled for later hearings.

"Those kids sat in there with everybody else who was there for arraignment," Crockett said. Other cases included adults accused of stealing and assault. There also was a video arraignment for a man charged with assault and felonious restraint of his ex-wife.

"They got to experience what criminal court is like," Crockett said. "None of them were smiling. Some of them looked scared."

Crockett said it was too soon to tell if a court appearance and fine would keep youths from smoking. "It might work as a deterrent," she said.