The Road Confusingly Travelled–how an apple can look like an orange with college student misconduct.
One of the most confusing aspects of the college judicial/disciplinary system is how a college can adjudicate something that is a “crime.” If you’ve ever wondered how a college student can be “convicted” of assault and yet not be in jail, you are not alone. Colleges use terms for policies that are the same (or really close) as the state definition for crimes, and in some instances have the exact same language. That’s inherently confusing and I have known Deans and attorneys that can’t grasp that something can be a violation of a “crime,” and yet not mean that a student broke the law. Let’s see if I can clear it up.
The venue in which a case is heard and the standard of proof applied are different determine what a person is responsible for. With apologies to my law school professors for the simplification of my explanation, think of the world as broken down into 3 “courts.”
- Criminal court—This is what most people think of when they think “crime.” In this court there are strict rules of evidence, extensive civil liberties, and the “state” brings the case against an individual. The prosecution (the “district attorney” or “DA”) must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused (“defendant”) committed the crime with the necessary intent. This is an incredibly high standard of proof because if the DA is successful the defendant will be denied his or her liberty and will face incarceration. Think of this standard as >95% likely that the defendant did it.
- Civil Court—If you sue someone for wronging you, you do it in civil court. In civil court the injured party/victim (“the plaintiff”) sues the accused person (“the defendant”) looking for a remedy for what he or she believes was damage done to him/her. The basis for this suit has to be among a group of torts (i.e. responsibilities or obligations that the defendant had to the plaintiff that were not met) and must show that the defendant did or did not do something, that action “injured” to the plaintiff, and that injury resulted in damages. The standard here is “clear and convincing” or somewhere around 80%. Once again, there are strict rules of evidence, and an attorney who speaks on their behalf almost always represents both parties. Civil courts can hear torts based on crimes with one of the most known examples being the OJ Simpson case where he was acquitted for a murder charge (i.e. he “didn’t commit” murder) but liable for a wrongful death tort (i.e. his actions lead to the death of two people.)
- Campus judicial hearing—While schools all have a slightly different system, there are similarities that cut across them all. In general, a student (“the respondent”) is accused of violating a school policy by someone (e.g. another student, staff, or professor) called the complainant. All the complainant has to show is that there was a “preponderance of evidence” that the respondent violate a school policy. In other words, the complainant must show that it was more likely than not or >50% that a policy was violated. There are essentially no rules of evidence and in most cases the school’s only due process obligation is to have a system that is inherently fair and to do what they say they are going to do. So if $20,000 goes missing from a student club account, it is possible that the person accused of stealing it will be found not guilty in criminal court, not liable in civil court, but be responsible in a judicial case.
The “wrong” a person does can fall into one or more venues, and here is where it gets really confusing. When a student does something wrong, it is possible that that action can be against policy, a tort, and/or a crime. Without any exception I can think of, anything that would rise to the level of a prosecutable crime will also be against school policy. However, many of the things that are violations of school policy will not be prosecutable crimes even if the violation has the same name and similar elements of a crime.
A good, and fairly non-controversial, example of this is hazing. Almost every school has a “hazing” policy and many of them simply quote state law as their policy. This would imply that if you violate the hazing policy on campus that you’re violating state law, but that isn’t the case. Let’s say a fraternity has their new members (i.e. pledges) go on a scavenger hunt and while that hunt has some embarrassing elements to it, there is no theft, vandalism, forced consumption of alcohol, or injury to anyone. In fact, each pledge says it was the most fun they ever had and ask to do a similar thing again in the future. If you read the hazing law in most jurisdictions this would constitute hazing, but no DA is going to prosecute anyone for it. On campus, however, that fraternity would likely have a hearing and be found responsible for hazing. They might be sanctioned with probation or even a brief suspension for violating that policy. That would mean that they violated the school’s policy on hazing that has the same as the language of the state law, but it does not mean that they violated the law. They were not heard in criminal court, and there probably would not have been a guilty finding even if they were.
Does this make sense? On Friday, I will talk about how this works with the most controversial issue of all, campus sexual assault, and why a student who commits sexual assault on campus did not necessarily commit a crime and why a college campus may be the best place to hear these cases.