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Legal Traps for the Unwary College Student

Posted on

By James L. Rudolph

It’s around this time of year when the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and the air is crisp with the smell of a new semester that students all throughout New England, and particularly in this college town, begin to return from Summer Break to resume their studies. Whether your child is a freshman going away to college for the first time, a senior returning for their last respite from the dreaded real world, or somewhere in between, it’s easy to settle into the relative calm of their absence and trust that they’re enjoying the new semester, and that the most dramatic issue you’ll have to deal with is a meal plan extinguished by too many late night calls to Dominos.

As with all periods in life, though, each semester comes with its own bumps in the road and various potential pitfalls. You’ve prepared them academically to ensure a bright future, and the last thing you want is for that future to be jeopardized or set back with a legal misstep. So before you plan your next visit to campus, take a few minutes and plan to help them avoid and address any potential legal issues in the coming semester. Here are some to be aware of:

Alcohol

College students find new ways to get into trouble every year, but the biggest recurring theme is alcohol. As a minor, underage drinking by your student can carry with it serious consequences. While state laws and school codes of conduct vary, underage drinking is almost always an arrestable offense at the discretion of the officer and more often than not will be reported to and punished by the school as well.

For students who are twenty one and over, it’s important to remember that simply because it’s legal for them to drink it’s not legal for them to do whatever they want while drinking. Massachusetts and many other states have very strict open-container and public intoxication laws that students often run afoul of when judgment is impaired. If stopped by a Police Officer, make sure your child knows the cardinal rules: say no more than you have to and always be respectful. Keep in mind as well, providing alcohol to their underage friends can also carry serious legal consequences, particularly if it results in a motor vehicle or other accident.

As everyone knows, driving under the influence is perhaps the most serious alcohol related trouble one can get into, with potential consequences like loss of license, community service, school sanctions, a legal record, or even jail time. It goes without saying that one should never drink and drive, but if your child’s had a drink and is pulled over it’s best not to submit to a breathalyzer test. Most states will automatically suspend their license for a period of months for the refusal, but it becomes much more difficult for the State to prove its case at trial and therefore enforce much harsher penalties.

Conversely, if your child hasn’t had a drink, by all means take the test. Either way, it’s typically best to stay in the car as long as possible. Lastly, whether they’ve been drinking or not, many states have laws strictly forbidding open containers of any kind in a motor vehicle, so they can still get into trouble by allowing friends to drink while they drive.

As a word of caution, many schools also have severe consequences for keeping alcohol in dorms, underage drinking, or activities that are considered to lead to binge drinking (the presence of kegs, drinking games, etc.), so make sure your student is familiar with their student handbook and knows whether the campus safety officers are a deputized police department and whether they need consent to enter and search a dorm room.

Fake IDs

Students have been making and utilizing fake IDs for approximately as long as there have been statutory age limits of any kind, but they’ve never been more legally dangerous as they are in today’s environment of heightened security. While using someone else’s real identification may only be a misdemeanor, it may also be punishable under laws applied to identity theft, which carry much harsher penalties. Using a fake ID with a picture of yourself is more often going to be a felony offense, which always carries harsher penalties and gives officers, prosecutors, and judges less discretion when dealing with any particular case.

Most serious of all is making fake IDs. In today’s climate many states have enacted laws directed at stemming the flow of fake IDs that could potentially be used for identity theft, illegal immigration, or even terrorism. Make sure your child doesn’t put themselves in a position where a strict application of law could turn their whole life upside down.

Credit

At almost every sporting, recruiting, or other campus event you see them: the tables handing out cheap school-branded swag in exchange for credit card applications. Then there’s the near-endless offers arriving in the mail. Credit markets have tightened up, but it’s still dangerously easy for students to get an unreasonable amount of credit extended and wind up in an unmanageable amount of debt. That debt can follow them for years, as can a record of any late or missed payments (which can be checked for free thanks to the Federal Trade Commission at AnnualCreditReport.com). So tell your children to do their future-selves a big favor and avoid the free winter hats and umbrellas, shred those junk mail offers (and avoid identity theft), and put those credit cards down.

Pranks

As tempting as it may be for today’s youth to recreate their favorite scenes from Animal House with a few of their closest friends, in reality pranks can and often do result in serious legal consequences for college students. After all, what they see as a simple college prank, like taking an item of distinction from a rival school, fraternity, sorority, or group of friends, most likely fits the legal definition of various crimes, and could lead to much more police interaction than they had planned for.

Also important to note is the recent attention being paid to hazing. More than ever, colleges and states alike are rightly recognizing much of what was once considered accepted rights of passage as criminal hazing. For its part, Massachusetts defines hazing as, “any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization, whether on public or private property, which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person,” and specifically eliminates consent as a defense.

Social Networking and Defamation

For anyone who’s been watching the news over the last year it should come as no surprise that cyberbullying is receiving more attention from law enforcement officials than ever before. Schools, too, are taking note, and have been quick in many instances to sanction students even for conduct entirely online outside of school.

The takeaway here is simple: students need to be careful with what they put in writing in emails and on social networking sites. Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to harass, and lets students be far more removed from the individual when they’re doing it. The golden rule here is if they wouldn’t do it in person, they shouldn’t do it online. Also keep in mind that not only do schools have the right to monitor a student’s online activity and act accordingly (and possibly also email depending on the university use policy), but everything put online is out there forever, and they certainly don’t want to be answering questions about abusive or irresponsible social media use at future job interviews.

Gambling

Despite their wide acceptance, it’s important to remember that poker games, sports pools, friendly wagers, and any other game of chance with money on the line is illegal in most states. Such activities open students up to the possibility of legal consequences, and, perhaps more likely, university sanctions.

Cheating/Plagiarism

Every student has been warned again and again about the dangers of cheating and of plagiarism and yet it continues apace. Today, in addition to everything students have ever been told, it’s especially important to be aware of the dangers of internet plagiarism – purchasing papers from internet databases or individual paper writers – which can have legal consequences for both the student and the paper source and which will certainly have academic consequences. Students have to keep in mind, whenever technology is developed to cheat, parallel technology is developed to catch cheaters and universities are using it.

Date Rape

Date rape is always a serious issue and has been reported with more frequency on a number of campuses in recent years. The term can include forced sexual intercourse with an individual, intercourse with an individual who is too intoxicated to consent, or purposefully drugging someone for the purpose of getting them to submit to intercourse. For students that have been victims of date rape, it’s important to remember that resources exist both on their campus and in their community, and they should immediately both seek out those resources and report the crime to law enforcement. If a student has been accused of date rape, it’s important to immediately seek legal counsel.

It’s no secret that alcohol and impaired judgment play a large role in many date rape scenarios so the takeaway is this: students should stay within their limits and stop immediately if there’s a question of consent on either side.

Copyright Infringement

It’s strange to think that a major concern of today’s college students should be copyright infringement, but it’s certainly the case. Ever since Napster, file-sharing has been unquestionably illegal and punishable in both a civil and a criminal context. Today, while Napster is defunct and the record companies have officially called off their strategy of suing individual infringers, BitTorrent remains a ready source of pirated content and the Motion Picture Association of America and individual studios continue to file actions against individuals, college students chief among them. The civil penalties for downloading even a single file can range anywhere from $750.00 to well over $100,000.00, as Boston University student Joel Tenenbaum recently found out in a case in Federal District Court here in Boston.

Not only should your students avoid any illegal downloading, they need to make sure that no one on their wireless network is doing any illegal downloading, which means putting a password on their wireless router. When their apartment, dorm room, or house connects to the internet, they’re identified by the service provider and the rest of the world by a number, an IP address. That specific IP address stays the same for each computer on the network, which means that if they leave their network unprotected any random individual can use their IP address to undertake a whole host of illegal activity, and it’s going to be traceable back to your student, the account holder, not to the downloader.

Landlord/Tenant Issues

There’s nothing more exciting for a student than their first apartment, and there’s nothing more frustrating than issues with that first apartment. One issue that student tenants run into all the time is the mishandling of a security deposit. The security deposit is a deposit paid up-front to ensure that if the tenant causes damage to the apartment, the landlord has the money to fix it without having to wait to get paid by the tenant.

In Massachusetts and many other states, though, there are very strict rules for how a landlord must handle a security deposit and landlords very rarely follow them correctly. In Massachusetts, a landlord who accepts a security deposit must give a written receipt for it, and within 30 days must do a walk-through of the apartment and provide the tenant with a written statement of its condition with a chance for objections to any inaccuracies, and must also provide the tenant with a written statement indicating not only the bank where the deposit is being held but the account number as well. If the landlord fails in any of these respects, the tenant then has the right to demand the deposit’s immediate return. A failure by the landlord at that stage can result in fairly substantial liability, so tenants should always press their advantage.

Within 30 days of moving out, the landlord must then either return the deposit or provide an itemized statement of deductions, sworn to under the pains and penalties of perjury, along with copies of all receipts, invoices, or estimates for repairs. Again, a failure to do so subjects a landlord to considerable liability, so don’t ever just give up on a security deposit. Whether a deposit is taken or not, it’s always a good idea to take pictures of the apartment both before moving in and after moving out to document the condition.

The other issue that students sometimes run into is eviction. While laws vary greatly by state, in Massachusetts it’s important to remember that tenants don’t have to vacate the apartment until a judge tells them to do so. The eviction process is started by what is called a Notice to Quit, which is served by a constable and which tells the tenant to be out by a certain date. Again, the tenant doesn’t have to be out by that date, but they do have to be aware of the documentation being delivered afterwards and make sure that if a case is filed, they timely file an Answer with any counterclaims for bad conditions or security deposits, and always ask for a jury trial.

Harassment and Discrimination

Colleges and Universities are supposed to be academic havens for young people, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. In the event of sexual harassment by a faculty or staff member, it’s always important to report it to law enforcement as soon as possible, and to remember that your student may have claims against both the individual and the school.

Claims of discrimination are just as serious, and may also give rise to both administrative and civil claims. If your child is attending a private institution, the student handbook no doubt lays out the school’s discrimination policy, which can be enforced if violated. If your child attends a public institution, that school has to adhere to the State’s laws regarding discrimination. In Massachusetts, a public institution cannot treat one individual differently based upon their race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, or status as a recipient of public assistance. If you believe that you’ve been discriminated against, contact both school administration and your state agency overseeing discrimination claims.

What if your student gets in trouble?

There are three important rules your student needs to keep in mind if they get in trouble: be respectful, don’t go it alone, and deal with it sooner rather than later. When dealing with law enforcement or other school or public officials, it’s important to always be respectful, even if they don’t think they’re in the wrong. No one ever got out of a citation or arrest by being a jerk to the officer, and many campus safety officers are actually deputized as police with the power to arrest, so it’s important to be respectful to everyone.

The second rule is don’t go it alone. Very rarely will a college student encountering a particular legal problem for the first time know what the correct course of action will be, so they need to find someone they trust and talk it through. If necessary, hire an attorney. As should be clear after reading this far, every state is different, so getting good local counsel is imperative in most cases.

Lastly, don’t waste time. Nobody wants to admit to mistakes made or deal with problems in the course of their busy lives, but dealing with legal troubles sooner rather than later is always the better way to go. Very frequently, issues that can be resolved easily very soon after the infraction become much more difficult to resolve as time goes by. The consequences of that inaction can then be legal and academic records that may have to be disclosed on job applications and that may prevent them from doing certain things, like getting a license to practice law.

Legal Emancipation

Last but not least, it’s important to remember that as of the time your child turns eighteen, they are legally an adult and therefore legally emancipated from you, their parents. After this point, while you may help pay for school, food, clothing, and housing, you are no longer required to (so remind them to be nice to you).

Just as important, since you’re no longer their legal guardian you can no longer access their health information or make legal, medical, or financial decisions for them if they’re incapable. In other words, if they’re in an accident and in the hospital, you won’t be able to access them or give doctors the authority to undertake possibly life saving measures. So like any responsible adult, it’s time for them to go see an attorney to discuss getting a healthcare proxy, HIPAA authorization, and a durable power of attorney. Most medical providers will not release information without the proper legal documents, even in the event of an emergency.

Posted By James Rudolph