Texas Juvenile Laws: Definitions, Penalties and More

As our understanding of psychology and cognitive development has evolved, as well as our understanding of free will and the like, Texas juvenile laws have undergone changes in virtually every session in which the state legislature has met. Therefore this page will most likely be updated frequently with those changes as they happen. Beginning with Texas definitions of what is a juvenile and then we'll move onto the types of juvenile offenses in the state.

Table of Contents

Definition of Juvenile (and other important terms)

The relevant Texas legal code on Juvenile offenses is fairly concept-heavy and replete with terminological distinctions. We’ll try to translate those definitions into the clearest possible language and perhaps show why the definitions are so confusing.

On its face, Texas considers a “child” (the relevant term for those prosecuted under juvenile law) to be someone who is between the ages of ten and seventeen years old. However even this far in, it’s not that clean-cut as if the “child” is over 17 but has engaged in activity that is needing of constant supervision, they may still be applied the moniker of the child as far as Texas courts are concerned.

Custodian vs Guardian

The terms “custodian” and “guardian” are often used interchangeably in Texas law but the penal system makes a distinction between the terms for a very specific reason. A “custodian” is simply the adult with whom the child currently resides. This is to be distinguished from a “guardian” whom courts have officially designated as the person responsible for the ‘child’ (see above) in question.

What is a Juvenile “Status Offender”

By creating a different “class” of citizens (minors vs adults) the state can bypass certain anomalies or contradictions that would exist. Things that would be a transparent and egregious violation of constitutional rights for an adult, can be considered crimes when done by minors. Even more to the point, these crimes are often victimless and would make little to no sense if the child were not a child. These are status offender crimes and examples of such are:

  • Running away from home (can you imagine if that was illegal for an adult to do?).
  • A violation of city curfew laws (see below).
  • Possession of alcohol.

Curfew Laws

The State of Texas gives individual cities the right to impose curfews on minors at their discretion (setting age and time requirements for curfews to be followed). Additionally, should something happen such as a serial killer or some type of disaster (as happened during the Covid-19 pandemic), curfews may be imposed on adults as well as juveniles. The primary penalty for a violation of a curfew is fine but sometimes the fine can be hefty.

We’ll touch on some of the current curfew laws in some of Texas’ largest cities.

Houston Curfew Laws

In 2007, Houston made changes to the Juvenile Curfew ordinance that remain in effect today. Anyone in Houston 16 or younger, they are not allowed to walk, run, drive, or even exist in a public space between the hours of 11:00 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Sunday thru Thursday. On Fridays and Saturdays, the curfew is pushed back to midnight (and expiring at 6 a.m. the following morning). Also, weekdays between 9:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. have a similar curfew in effect.

As one might imagine, there are quite a few conditions and exceptions to the rule. For a full list of the exceptions visit the cities website on juvenile ordinances. To view this particular ordinance on Houston curfews visit here.

If you are a minor, here are some exceptions in which you will not be penalized in Houston for breaking curfew:

  • You are with your parent.
  • You are with an adult that your parent is aware of and has consented to.
  • You had an emergency and were running an errand because of that emergency.
  • You were at some sort of activity that involved school, religious, or government-sponsored activity.
  • The minor was engaged in a lawful employment activity or was going directly to or coming from lawful employment.
  • You are married or had “disabilities of minority removed.” Yes, minors can legally marry in Texas.

Also, note that the 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. condition that is in effect on weekdays does not apply during summer break or holiday break.

Dallas Curfew Laws

Dallas curfew laws (sec. 31-33) are very similar to Houston. From 11:00 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday-Thursday. Then Midnight to 6:00 a.m. the following day for Fridays and Saturdays. The exceptions are also similar (nearly identical to Houston) but Dallas makes sure to note that you can be on the sidewalk near your (the minor’s home) and not expect to be fined or charged with violating curfew laws.

The penalty for violating curfew laws in Dallas is a fine of up to $500.

Truancy

In Texas, attending school is required if you are between the ages of six and 19. The only exception to this condition is if you are homeschooled (also, technically, if you attend a private school). There are conditions for schools to prove that home school education is sufficient to be waived but that will be covered in another section on this site.

In a period from the 1990s to the early 2000s, Texas was notorious for charging and prosecuting minors under Truancy laws. Despite public attention, there was little change in the system which held that 10 unexcused absences in six months could require jail time. However that all changed in May of 2012 when 17-year-old student Diane Tran was sentenced to 24 hours in prison by the judge for missing school.

An honors student working a full-time job and a part-time job to help support her family, Tran’s case made national headlines and revealed Texas’ punitive system for needlessly sending minors (disproportionately minorities) to jail. In the next legislative session, 2015, Texas passed a law that made it Texas schools could no longer send students to Truancy courts.

Now if students have repeated unexcused absences their legal guardians are contacted and notified of the Truant behavior. If there’s no excuse to the satisfaction of the judge, the likely result is a fine or, if the child is of legal driving age, the revocation of their license. However, minors could still go to jail indirectly for Truancy if they violate whatever penalties are imposed on them by the courts for their Truancy (such as driving after their license has been revoked).

Juvenile Drug Crimes

With Texas’ still fairly hostile attitude towards Marijuana, it’s no surprise that they maintain a no-tolerance policy for almost any incident that combines minors and drugs of any type. However, the good news is that most drug possession charges for Juveniles tend to result in a Class C Misdemeanor for the minor. As we discussed in our piece on misdemeanors vs felonies, misdemeanors are far less severe than felonies and a Class C Misdemeanor is the least serious among the three categories of misdemeanors.

Even if convicted of a Class C Misdemeanor, the minor will receive a fine of up to $500. Furthermore, the child, in this case, will receive no jail time unless they were detained at the time they were cited.

Vandalism

A very common offense for a juvenile to be cited in the Texas penal code as minors have both access and a lot of free time to commit such acts. The penal code has a hierarchy of punishment that focuses on more severe penalties for more severe damage done by the actions of vandalism.

If the damage is less than $100, you’re now talking about a citation of a Class C misdemeanor which allows the court to place a fine of up to $500 on the perpetrator. Here you might see what the court is doing, they are charging a penalty that gives them the right to fine the perpetrator for an amount that is more than the damage they caused. Escalating things, if the damage done is more than $100 but less than $750, now it’s a Class B Misdemeanor. Furthermore, it becomes Class A when the amount exceeds $750 but less than $2,500. Past that, we’re now in the territory of a State Jail Felony which one can expect if the damage they cause is between $2,5000 and $30,000.

Underage Marriage

Texas does allow for underage marriage (which they define as being under 18). If the minor is between the ages of 16 and 18 and has the permission of the parents (legal guardians) they can be married under Texas law. Alternatively, a minor can be married if they have their “disabilities of the minority” removed by the courts. The disability of minority is a phrase used by Texas to describe the limitations on freedom that a minor has when the state considers them to be a minor.

These conditions can be removed by state courts upon appeal. This illustrates yet another reason why juvenile law is so complicated in the state because there’s no single metric (such as age) that delineates what the state considers to be a juvenile vs what the state considers to be an adult.

Underage Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism operates an updated and easy-to-read list of Texas underage drinking laws but we’ll summarize some of the important points. Additionally, the relevant section in the state Penal code regulating the alcoholic beverage code (which covers minors as well) is Chapter 106 of the state penal code. Underage consumption of alcohol is illegal if a minor sips alcohol. The only exception to this rule is IF the guardian (see above for definition) is right there with the minor.

Illegal For Minors to “Attempt” to Purchase Alcohol?

Anyone who has either seen Superbad or had the misfortune of being a teenager knows the anxiety that comes with attempting to purchase alcohol as a minor. As much as we hate to break it to you, it is indeed illegal. Specifically, as the law defines it if you do “an act amounting to more than mere preparation that tends but fails to effect the commission of the offense intended.” In other words, if you do more than prepare to buy alcohol but make an attempt to buy it and fail. A minor does not need to successfully purchase alcohol for them to have committed a crime.

DUI in Texas

Many people wonder what the distinction between “Driving Under the Influence” (or a D.U.I.) and “Driving While Intoxicated” (or a DWI) is. The answer unfortunately is that it depends on the state in which you reside. Texas reserves the term DUI to distinguish between juveniles and adults. In the lone-star state, adults are given a DWI while juveniles are given them, much more common in other states, Driving Under the Influence citation.

This one is fairly simple: Texas has a zero-tolerance policy for juveniles driving under the influence. One upside is that, at the lower end of the BAC (blood alcohol content) level, there’s quite a bit of confusion about what is being tracked and whether it’s definitive that the minor was drinking or perhaps had just had some cold and flu medication.

What is a “GUARDIAN AD LITEM”?

In the state of Texas, a Guardian Ad Litem is when a child is appearing before a court without a proper legal guardian. “Ad Litem” translated to “for the lawsuit” is a guardian appointed by the court solely for the minor having a guardian during a particular ongoing lawsuit.