Case Study: The Underage Party–Hidden Considerations in the Judicial Process
[NOTE: All names and identifying information has been changed to protect the privacy of the students involved. Any relation to a case you may know is purely coincidental.]
Steve was a senior at a competitive school living in a residence hall on campus. On Wednesday some underclassmen asked Steve if he would buy alcohol for a “suite” party they are having that weekend that would mostly be attended by other residents. Steve knew these students and has purchased alcohol for some of them before, so this request was not a big deal. Steve bought handles of different hard alcohols and a couple of cases of beer for them, but did not attend the party.
At 2:30AM one of the a freshman guests heading back to his dorm with a BAC more than three times the legal limit, was hit by a car, and was seriously injured. The situation made it to the campus newspaper, and there was a lot of upper-level administrative attention on that case—including the campus attorneys. Steve and the party hosts were eventually informed that there would be a judicial hearing for their actions with the charges being underage drinking, providing alcohol to minors, and reckless endangerment based on the party and the student’s injuries. At the hearing all the respondents argued that since Steve was not at the event he should not be responsible for how much the injured student drank, and that none of them should be responsible for the fact that the freshman was hurt on the way back to his residence since his being hit by a car was a fluke.
What Steve and the other students did not realize was that there were two simultaneous forces affecting their case. They knew about the one clearly written in the charge letter and presented in the evidence against them. They presented a decent (although not great) defense against that one, but they did not see or consider the political impact of the student’s injuries and how their case fit into the big picture. When it came to the case, the judicial board chair was aware that there were a lot of eyes on the outcome and that awareness was shared with the board prior to the hearing.
As the students presented their defenses, the board was listening for information to help address both the case itself and also the various implications of the student’s injuries. Since Steve and the other respondents did not consider that aspect they did not address it and the board was left with only their pre-case impressions and a belief that the respondents did not “get the seriousness” of what happened. Steve was found responsible for providing alcohol and reckless endangerment, and was suspended for the last semester of his college career and had to come back the following year in order to take the mandatory class he needed for his major.
It is important to realize that the board did NOT intentionally punish Steve more severely because of the political undercurrents. By the time the case got to the board, the impact of the politics and attention were already in place, and those factors directly affected the outcome:
- While this board almost never heard alcohol cases the fact that they were implied a seriousness they could not ignore.
- While the student injury was clearly why the case was treated so seriously, the board and the respondents were not looking at the same issue. The respondents focused on the “fluke” nature of that injury, but the board believed the idea that an extremely drunk freshman getting hurt was actually very foreseeable. All the respondents seemed to be doing was missing the point and not taking responsibility.
- The decision to hold Steve accountable even though he was not there was not what was normally done, but the decision to do so in this case was made prior to the hearing. When the board got the case the students assumed that Steve would be fine based on their experience, but the board decided the person most responsible was the older student that supplied the alcohol because he had the ultimate responsibility for how that alcohol was used.
Cases do not happen in a vacuum, and the political climate at the school, the “headline” news, previous cases, and recent history can all play a factor. The good news is that these are not factors in 95% of cases. The bad news is that when those external considerations are factors, it is highly unlikely that a student, fraternity, or sorority will be able to identify and address them properly. If you are in trouble, and you think the people working with your case are treating it like a bigger deal than you think it should be, there are probably more things going on that you know. Contact us for a free consultation to see what you may be missing and how we can help.
Have you had a disciplinary case against you, your fraternity, or your sorority go worse than you expected? Contact me at DaveK@Collegejudicialconsultants.com and share your story for a future piece or share your story in the comments. Be safe, be good, and be ready.