Decatur, GA -- Whether it involves drinking, drugs, hazing, or date rape, college students-including good kids from good families-can inadvertently stumble into a minefield of legal problems. Most assume it won't happen to them.
The reality, says attorney J.Tom Morgan, is that college provides a lot of opportunity, temptation, and responsibility that most kids are unprepared for-and legally speaking, they're woefully ignorant of the consequences of their actions.
"A 'good kid' who's never gotten into trouble can easily get in trouble when he goes off to college," says Morgan, coauthor along with Wilson Parker of the newly released Ignorance Is No Defense, A College Student's Guide to North Carolina Law (Westchester Legal Press, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9819397-3-5, $15.00, www.IgnoranceIsNoDefense.com/nc). "And if he breaks the wrong law, he can face ramifications that may alter the course of his life."
If you're 16 or older, you're considered an adult in North Carolina-and can be tried accordingly. When you woke up on your 16th birthday, it's likely you celebrated with friends and family and perhaps took a special drive to the DMV. And though you may have still considered yourself a "kid" (and still might, for that matter), know that according to the state of North Carolina, once you turn 16 you are an adult and can be tried as such in a court of law.
What's more, if you call another state home and happen to commit a crime in North Carolina, this rule applies to you as well (despite what the laws of your "home" state are). Not only can this mean harsher punishment than if you are tried as a juvenile, it also means that any arrest made after your 16th birthday may remain on your criminal history for the remainder of your life.
"Most people assume that the age for being tried as an adult is 18," explains Morgan. "And that is true for most states. In fact, North Carolina is the only state in the entire country where 16-year-olds are required to be tried as adults. And this is important for students to understand as their criminal records can prevent them from being accepted into colleges and graduate schools and, later in life, from getting jobs or other opportunities they are interested in. Bottom line: Just because you are young doesn't mean you are off the hook."
Forgo the fake ID. Many college students misrepresent their ages in order to drink and/or gain access to the hottest nightclub or the bar where their older friends are hanging out. Yes, in college, using a fake ID or using someone else's ID may be as common as mid-term exams-but both are serious offenses. What college students may not know is that North Carolina treats one offense as a misdemeanor and the other as a felony.
In North Carolina, a fake ID is a falsified identification that includes your picture and information with an altered date of birth. Possession or use of such by someone under 21 to gain admission to a bar or nightclub where alcohol is served or to purchase alcohol is a misdemeanor. The possession or use of an actual ID that belongs to someone else, such as an older brother, sister, or friend, is a felony.
"In either case, if you're under 21, you risk possible jail time and loss of your license for one year," asserts Morgan. "If you use someone else's ID, you may also be charged with obstruction of justice for lying about your identity. And if you give your license to someone else to use, you may face a misdemeanor charge and lose your license for one year."
Know the law before taking a sip. Most students are well aware that the legal drinking age in North Carolina is 21. But not only are the penalties different for different ages, there are also different penalties for different types of alcohol.
Consider this scenario, for example: Three students, an 18-year-old and two 19-year-olds, are hanging out together at a party. The 18-year-old is drinking beer. One 19-year-old is drinking beer, and the other is drinking bourbon and coke. The party is busted by the police, and all three students are arrested for underage possession of alcohol. The charges may look something like this:
• The 18-year-old will be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor because he is under 19.
• The 19-year-old drinking beer will be charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor.
• The 19-year-old drinking bourbon and coke will be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.
"While both charges are serious, a Class 1 misdemeanor charge has more serious consequences than a Class 3 misdemeanor charge," Morgan notes. "In any case of underage drinking, you risk losing your license for one year."
And it's not only the underage drinkers who are liable in certain situations. For example, did you know that if you are underage and attending a party where alcohol is being served and is readily available, an officer has probable cause to believe that everyone attending is in possession? It's true. And he or she may arrest everyone under the age of 21-regardless of whether or not they have actually consumed alcohol.
Think twice before inviting your friends over for a party. If you're hosting a party where underage drinking occurs, you can be arrested and charged with unlawful furnishing of alcohol to minors and aiding and abetting a crime. You risk possible jail time and a one-year revocation of your license.
And parents, don't think you can let your own kids have a celebratory sip of beer over dinner during a weekend trip home, either. "According to North Carolina law, parents are not allowed to provide alcohol to their children in their own homes," says Morgan.
One more point: North Carolina has what is called social host liability. That means that when the host of a party provides alcoholic beverages to another person-regardless of the person's age-the host may be found liable for damages if he knew or reasonably should have known that the other person was intoxicated and is driving. So if a person who's been drinking at your bash gets in an accident on her way home-you could be found liable for any damages.
Hook-ups are not always innocent fun. When you mix alcohol (read: lowered inhibitions + liquid courage) with flirtations, things can happen. And if you stumble out of the weekend's party with your more-than-tipsy new friend, it can mean big trouble if you aren't careful. In North Carolina, if you hook up with someone who is seriously drunk and the two of you have sex, then the intoxicated party may be able to file charges against you for rape. That means your one-night stand could conceivably lead to a felony charge of rape with a minimum of 58 months in prison.
"Having sex with someone who is intoxicated to the point of being unable to give consent is rape in North Carolina," says Morgan. "And I don't think I have to emphasize what a serious charge that is. If convicted, not only can it mean immediate harsh punishment for the accused, it will also be a blemish on his record for the rest of his life."
The Internet is full of hidden legal pitfalls. It's no secret that kids are living a large portion of their lives online these days. Most of them don't realize that what may seem like a harmless email, Facebook comment, instant message, or text message can in fact result in a very serious criminal charge of cyberstalking.
Specifically, says Morgan, sending threatening emails, repeatedly communicating with someone after he has asked you to stop, or even bombarding him with text messages with the intent to annoy can all result in a misdemeanor charge.
"The Internet and text messaging give kids a false sense of security because, for the most part, there is little to no personal contact involved with the communication between two parties," explains Morgan. "In reality, what goes on online is just as real as an actual in-person altercation and can be charged and tried as such. If a girl repeatedly texts her ex-boyfriend after their break-up to ask him why he left her, or if she has her friends write threatening messages to him online, they are all guilty of cyberstalking. And even if the message is originally sent as a joke-remember-it's not the intent of the message but the content that matters in court!"
Sticky fingers can mean a stiff penalty. For most college students, a part-time job is a necessity during their years away at school. And while it's no secret that stealing is against the law, Morgan says you'd be surprised by the number of students who think swiping something of little value from their place of employment isn't that big of a deal-when in fact, it can lead to serious legal consequences.
In North Carolina, stealing anything from your employer-no matter how little-is considered a felony. This is something to think about the next time you want to slip your friends a few free drinks at your job as a bartender or let your girlfriend "borrow" that gorgeous scarf from the display table at the clothing store where you work.
"Most people wrongly assume that if an item of little value is taken, then it isn't a big deal," asserts Morgan. "And that's simply not true. Those free beers you gave to your friends at work can result in a felony conviction on your criminal record for the rest of your life and possible jail time-and a misdemeanor for your friends for accepting the stolen goods!"
Hazing isn't fun and games. Getting lost on campus on the first day, enduring the cafeteria food, and cheering for your school at your very first football game-these are all "rites of passage" for college students. And for many, joining an organized school group, like a fraternity, sorority, athletic team, or club is an important part of their experience as well. But the hazing that often goes along with the experience is not all fun and games-in fact, participating in it can land you a misdemeanor conviction.
"The crime of hazing is committed when any student of a university, college, or school subjects another student to physical injury as part of an initiation or prerequisite to membership to any organized school group," says Morgan. "This can include forcing pledges to eat or drink something against their will that makes them sick, or even something as seemingly harmless as forcing potential members to stand outside in the cold and recite club rules. Just because something seems like harmless fun or tradition, it doesn't make it less of a crime in the eyes of the law."
When friendly banter turns foul, your best "self-defense" is to walk away. With parties in full swing and alcohol flowing, it's not uncommon for celebrations to get out of hand and turn ugly. If you find yourself in the middle of an escalating confrontation, don't assume you can claim self-defense for fighting back if things get out of hand and someone gets hurt. The truth, says Morgan, is that self-defense is a terribly complicated matter, and it's not as easy to prove as you might think. And the penalties for your actions can be very stiff.
"It's best to avoid situations in which self-defense is necessary, of course," Morgan advises. "And if you are caught in a moment where things get heated or out of control-swallow your anger and walk away. It's the best thing that you can do for your safety both physically and legally. Remember, it is better to be a coward for a minute than dead for a lifetime."
Remember: "I didn't mean to" is not a valid excuse. College is an exciting time and connecting with new people is part of what makes it so special. Unfortunately, it's all too easy to get caught up in the moment or cave to peer pressure. Both can result in otherwise well-behaved and responsible kids getting themselves involved in activities they wouldn't have otherwise. From hazing to underage drinking to assault-simply being present for some of these crimes is enough to earn you a guilty charge.
"In most cases, individuals may not think they are committing a crime or may not intend to commit a crime," Morgan says. "Sometimes activities get out of control, or alcohol interferes with judgment, and crimes-like hazing or assault-result. With most crimes your intent to commit a crime is not important. What is important is your intent to commit the act that results in the crime."
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