SALT LAKE CITY — Tanner Atwood-Bowen was in high school when he and two friends found a four-wheeler and went for a joyride through a Sandy neighborhood.
He later admitted to a felony theft charge in Utah's juvenile justice system, paid the court about $5,000 and had the record expunged a year later, he said. But the conviction has continued to haunt him in his work selling real estate and an earlier stint as a probation officer.
Atwood-Bowen, now 29, believes he could have put the phantom record to rest if he'd had one key tool: an attorney.
"At the time, I didn't think a lawyer would have made a difference," he said. "We made our mistake, we knew we got caught, we weren't bad kids by any means."
He said he got A's in school and had no other run-ins with police.
"We just wanted to get this mistake out of our way and move on with our lives," he said.
When he was charged in juvenile court more than a decade ago, he said, his parents wanted him to own up to what he'd done. Now they wish they would have hired an attorney who could have negotiated with prosecutors and secured a less severe misdemeanor conviction of joyriding.
"A lawyer would have went to battle on that," Atwood-Bowen said.
Utah's Legislature and governor agree. A new law set to take effect in July will equip each child in Utah's juvenile justice system with an attorney, building on a series of reforms in the Beehive State in recent years.
Gov. Gary Herbert signed the change into law last week, making Utah one of at least a dozen states to provide an attorney for every child, whether or not they can afford to pay for one, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center.
The national group has backed measures like the new one in Utah, which stipulates that children in the juvenile system are automatically considered indigent, meaning they qualify for a public defender. Under earlier reforms, only youths facing felonies were guaranteed an attorney.
Critics of the Utah proposal have argued it is not necessary for children to have a lawyer accompany them for each court date, especially during review hearings that take place after a judge issues penalties such as community service or probation.
Proponents counter that attorneys continue to play a key role at that juncture. For example, they can seek extensions or shorter sentences at those hearings and can advocate for children if they get into more trouble, said Sen. Todd Weiler. He said he fears the lawyers may not read reports on their young clients if they aren't required to be there.
"You could have a situation where a kid stayed out all night or stayed out till 2 a.m., came home drunk. The kid's hungover. The mom is mad at him. The prosecutor is asking him questions and there's no defense attorney to say, 'Hold on, stop talking, let's go in another room and sit down,'" Weiler said. "We're trying to make the system better."
Today, juvenile judges in more populous counties tend to appoint attorneys at the first opportunity, said Weiler, R-Woods Cross. But children in rural counties with fewer resources often miss out on representation.
The advocacy group Voices for Utah Children teamed up with University of Utah students to observe about 200 juvenile court hearings last year, confirming those children in outlying courthouses often appeared before a judge without a lawyer.
"From our perspective, having that defense attorney there to navigate kids through the process and give them an idea of how court procedures can impact their futures, it's just going to produce way better outcomes for young people," said Anna Thomas, a policy analyst with the group.
The new reform builds on a 2017 law that cut down the number of children and teens in custody, reserving detention for only the most serious cases and preventing kids from going to court simply because they skipped school.
The 2017 law directed schools to handle absences and behavioral issues, so as a result, fewer low-level cases end up in the court system.
Since then, the number of juvenile misdemeanor cases has dropped 60 percent, noted Jojo Liu, assistant director of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission. It means the children and teens who currently appear in front of a judge are facing more serious charges.
"In that scenario, it really is imperative that everyone has representation," Liu said. Under the new law, if judges determine a child's family actually can afford to pay an attorney, they can order the parents to reimburse the legal fees.
Todd Utzinger, Davis County's legal defender coordinator, qualified his support for the law. He believes it will pull attorneys away from more pressing cases to attend hearings where there's no dispute, such as when a youth successfully completes probation and a judge formally approves.
"I think these concerns are relatively minor compared to the benefits of the bill," Utzinger said. "Every minor should have representation."
Atwood-Bowen's case predated an earlier 2015 Utah law requiring attorneys for youths facing felonies. He said his own juvenile record is partly why he no longer works in law enforcement, even though it is not traceable today.6 comments on this story
In 2017, a police standards board determined he had lied to the panel by failing to note convictions on his juvenile criminal record and traffic offenses. Atwood-Bowen countered that an employee of the court told him the expunged records no longer counted as convictions. He said he had in fact disclosed the criminal history before he took a lie detector test, he recalled.
The board ultimately sided against him. He was suspended from working in law enforcement for two years and maintains he never purposely misled the Peace Officer Standards and Training board. Its public findings still turn up in Google searches for his realty business.
"Something I did when I was 17 is haunting me, seemingly for my whole life," he said. "I have to tell this story so people know what really happened so I can get a job."