No Matter Who Prosecutes You, Expect Trouble at School
You might think that being charged with a federal crime, such as transporting illegal drugs across state lines, is more serious than being arrested in Philadelphia for graffiti vandalism, and in one sense, you'd be correct. But from the perspective of a college or university in Pennsylvania, either of those offenses may also subject you to the school's disciplinary process – a sort of second penalty you risk paying even if you're cleared of the underlying federal, state, or local charges.
College and University codes of conduct tend to be broadly written and are interpreted and administered by school faculty members, staff, and sometimes even students. Generally speaking, any crime that could be interpreted as reflecting poorly on the school or affecting members of the school community can result in the student being charged by the school with a code of conduct violation.
Criminal Charges Are Always Trouble
Let's be clear, and it goes without saying: you should avoid violating ANY law. That said, it's, of course, clear that some laws are more serious than others and that there are distinctions among federal, state, and local laws.
Federal criminal law tends to apply to criminal activity that either crosses state lines, or that happens on federal property. Transporting illegal drugs or the proceeds of illegal drug sales from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, for example, can result in federal criminal charges, as can possession of illegal drugs on federal property, including national parks and monuments. Crimes that take place in airports or on planes are often prosecuted as federal crimes as well. Many federal crimes are considered by laypeople (such as those who may be hiring you in the future) to be more serious than their state-law counterparts, even if the penalties happen to be similar.
State criminal law in Pennsylvania applies to a far wider range of criminal activity that takes place within the state. Virtually any crime you can think of – assault, retail theft, illegal drug possession or sale, disturbing the peace – is covered by law in Pennsylvania. Generally speaking, students in Pennsylvania are more likely to be charged with a state criminal violation than with a federal one, if only because there are many more state prosecutors in Pennsylvania than there are federal prosecutors.
Most local criminal laws in Pennsylvania are simply the result of the police or prosecutors applying Pennsylvania state criminal law at the local level. While there are a few laws that apply only in certain cities – there is a law against carrying an unlicensed firearm in Philadelphia, for example – those laws are generally authorized by the state. From the perspective of students, however, it's important to pay close attention to things like local noise, household garbage, and occupancy codes and ordinances. While they do not result in jail time and are not criminal convictions, receiving a penalty under a local ordinance or code might be deemed to be a student conduct code violation depending on the nature of the violation and the school.
School Codes of Conduct Apply On- and Off-Campus
It's extremely important for students to realize that their school's code of conduct often applies to their behavior both on and off campus. Just because you're away from campus – even if you're out of state on a school break – doesn't mean you're immune from your school's student conduct code.
For example, Temple University's Student Conduct Code states that it applies on “university premises;” “within 500 yards of university premises;” on university shuttle buses and vehicles; and “at university-sponsored activities;” and “to off-campus incidents or conduct that adversely affect the university community and/or the pursuit of its objectives.” In other words, if your actions are deemed to “adversely affect” the school, no matter where on the planet they take place or whether you're charged with violating a local, state, or federal law, you could be subject to a disciplinary proceeding by Temple's Student Conduct Board.
Temple is not unique in broadly applying its code of conduct to student activity that may take place far from campus. Penn State's Student Code of Conduct applies to on-campus behavior as well as to “behavior which occurs elsewhere when the University can demonstrate a clear and distinct interest as an academic institution regardless of where the conduct occurs, and which . . . Constitutes a violation of local, state, or federal law.”
Drexel's Code of Conduct “applies to Students . . . both on and off Drexel University campus.” Further, “[v]iolations of any federal, state, and city laws and ordinances are considered to be a violation of this Policy,” and students are required to notify the school within 30 days of a plea of no contest, a conviction, or an “acceptance of responsibility” for any violation of a crime above a minor traffic infraction.
The University of Pennsylvania's Code of Student Conduct simply – and broadly – states that “Students are expected to exhibit responsible behavior regardless of time or place. Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action by the University.” While that's a short statement, it is potentially very broad in its application.
In other words, even if you are charged with a federal, state, or local crime while away on spring break or back home during summer vacation, if you're enrolled at a Pennsylvania college or university, you also risk being disciplined by the school for your alleged behavior.
The Standards Aren't the Same
Our legal system, though, of course, far from perfect, provides substantial protections for those charged with crimes. Among other things, we are innocent until proven guilty; our refusal to testify at trial is not to be held against us; we have the right to legal counsel, and our court proceedings are open to the public.
School disciplinary proceedings, however, typically do not provide the accused student with these same legal rights. Disciplinary proceedings are civil matters, not criminal; the procedures are typically much less formal than criminal ones; evidentiary standards are usually much more relaxed than in civil or criminal court cases; hearings are held in private, and of course, the student doesn't face jail time if found to have violated the school conduct code.
What can result, however, can impact your future just as severely – sometimes even more severely – than if you are convicted of or accept any level of responsibility for a local, state, or federal crime. Even a seemingly low-level punishment, like a notice on your record, can follow you for many future academic and job applications. And while some employers or schools will overlook a written notice on an otherwise exemplary academic record, a suspension or expulsion is much harder to ignore.
This is why it is vital if you are a student who has been charged with any crime at the local, state, or federal level – including violations of local ordinances – for you to consult with an attorney who has experience defending students against such charges. Joseph D. Lento has been defending students charged with crimes in Pennsylvania for years, and he knows that the criminal charges may only be part of what you're going to have to deal with. He also has many years of experience representing students involved in school disciplinary proceedings, and he is well aware that what happens in your criminal case can greatly affect whether or how your school brings disciplinary proceedings against you.
What to Consider if You're Charged with a Local, State, or Federal Crime While Enrolled in School in Pennsylvania
Normally, if you're charged with a crime, especially one that is relatively serious, those charges become the primary focus of your life for many months or even years until the matter is resolved. You find an experienced and effective defense attorney to represent you, and they help you understand the charges and your options, negotiate with the prosecutors, defend you at trial if necessary, and generally are there with you every step of the way.
When you're enrolled in a college or university in Pennsylvania, however, you need to be focused on two fronts: defending against your criminal charges and possibly defending yourself against school disciplinary proceedings that arise because of the criminal charges. In some ways, the criminal charges are, if not easier, then more straightforward to deal with because there are strict evidentiary and procedural rules that govern what kind of evidence the government can use against you, how the cases move forward, and what the standards are for innocence or guilt.
Campus disciplinary proceedings, however, are almost always much less formal and, as a result, uncertain. Evidence or testimony that would never be admissible in court might be allowed during a disciplinary hearing. You may or may not be allowed to have an attorney or other advisor present during meetings, interviews, and hearings. If you refuse to speak up on your own behalf, the disciplinary panel might hold that against you.
The University of Pennsylvania's Code of Student Conduct, for example, notes that a student's “decision not to answer questions or provide information will not be a reason to delay or defer an investigation or proceedings.” And the results of your criminal case – even if the charges are dropped, or you are acquitted – may not matter at all to the hearing panel. Furthermore, if you try to ignore the disciplinary proceedings and refuse to cooperate, that itself is often treated as a separate code of conduct violation.
It can be intimidating to try to defend yourself against criminal charges, but when you add the possibility of school disciplinary proceedings to the mix, it makes the entire situation even more difficult to manage. Fortunately, there are attorneys who have helped students in these kinds of situations over and over again. Joseph D. Lento has helped many students navigate the complicated mix of having to defend against criminal charges while facing the possibility of school disciplinary proceedings.
Don't Face This Situation Alone
College can be both a wonderful and challenging time for many students. After all, challenging yourself is a big part of why many students go to college, and the college learning and social environment are often wonderful. But if you've been charged with a crime, whether local, state, or federal, you've just amped up the challenge level way beyond what you should try to deal with on your own, and school has suddenly become a lot less wonderful. You need the help of a professional, someone who has faced this kind of situation many times over and can take some of the burdens off of your shoulders.
Joseph D. Lento is that person. He has represented hundreds of clients charged with local, state, and federal crimes in Pennsylvania; many of them were students. He regularly represents students in school disciplinary proceedings in cases where there were and were not underlying criminal charges. It's hard to find someone with his years of experience in these two areas, and it's precisely this kind of unique expertise you need to help you deal with this kind of situation.
If you're a student who has been charged with a crime in Pennsylvania, call Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm at 888.535.3686 or contact them online. Sometimes, picking up the phone is the single hardest thing to do in this kind of situation. Joseph D. Lento understands; he and the Lento Law Firm have helped many other students over the years and are here to listen and to help.