Let’s start with the second part of the question on whether you have to attend. No, you do not have to attend a preliminary inquiry. But there are situations where you definitely would want to attend.
Having said that, a preliminary inquiry is an informal meeting between the child, the parent(s) and a juvenile probation officer. It is informal in the fact that it is just an office meeting. It is not a meeting in court. There are no legal formalities to the meeting.
Specifically, neither you nor your child are under oath. More importantly, nothing that is said in the meeting is admissible in court against your child. The statements made are not testimony. They cannot be used as admissions of guilt.
Because of the informality, you do not need an attorney. You have a right to have an attorney. However, it is not necessarily a good use of funds. The attorneys have little to add to the meeting. So you would really only take an attorney for comfort rather than legal necessity.
Though the statements during the meeting are not admissions and cannot be used against your child in the prosecution of the case, they can be used for other purposes related to whether charges are even filed, the conditions of supervision in cases of time waivers or probation, and sentencing.
Perhaps, the most important thing to note about a preliminary inquiry is that in minor first time offenses, the juvenile probation officer can dispose of the matter informally. This means that criminal charges can be avoided.
This brings us back to the question in the beginning of “why should I go to a preliminary inquiry?” You should absolutely go in minor first time offenses. After all, it is possible that criminal charges can be avoided. You should go in many cases even where the charges are more serious and there is a prior criminal history with your child.
Because the probation officer can make recommendations on conditions of probation or the conditions of a time waiver, what occurs during the meeting will often weigh heavily on those recommendations. In other words, the probation officer will be looking to see what kind of supervision is necessary for your child.
You would attend the preliminary inquiry because juvenile probation officers are much more likely to make reasonable recommendations regarding conditions of probation (supervision) if the parents are involved.
If it appears that parents are not involved and the child lacks supervision, then the probation officer will likely suggest much more onerous conditions for probation. After all, if the juvenile probation officer feels that you are not properly supervising the child, the State of New Mexico will happily take over those tasks in the form of very strict terms of probation.
Even where the child is charged with a felony (which is much more common than one might expect), it is often worth going to the preliminary inquiry for the reasons stated above. Keep in mind that you are doing this as caring and concerned parent. It will not avoid criminal charges since the juvenile probation officers have no discretion in felony cases and must forward the case to the district attorney. However, it can affect sentencing and/or conditions of probation.
In summary, a preliminary inquiry is an informal meeting between you, you child and the juvenile probation officer. You don’t have to go but there are a number of reasons why you would want to go. Because having your child charged with a crime is such a stressful and emotional event and it is not unusual to be somewhat nervous or even fearful of the situation, it is often useful to talk to an experienced juvenile criminal attorney before the preliminary inquiry meeting so you will know what to expect.