Crimes involving college students

Photos of University of Virginia Rotunda Tour, Charlottesville
This photo of University of Virginia Rotunda Tour is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Charlottesville is the home of the University of Virginia, and we represent a lot of students.  Students and their parents are often surprised that the Commonwealth’s Attorneys don’t recognize “But he’s a good kid” as a complete defense.  Parents often can’t believe that the police actually want to prosecute their son or daughter for what seem minor transgressions.  Judges and prosecutors in Charlottesville and Albemarle don’t like to hear the argument that “if you convict Johnny of this crime, it will stay with him for the rest of his life, and he’s going to be a doctor/lawyer/teacher and it will mess him up forever.”  So defending students requires some experience and some discretion if there is going to be any chance of mitigating the consequences of what Johnny did when he had too much to drink at the frat party.  According to Chef on South Park, “There’s a time and a place for everything.  It’s called college.”  The problem is that prosecutors and University officials don’t see it that way.

Students’ problems tend to fall into a few categories:

  • Alcohol-related charges — using a fake ID, under-age drinking, drunk in public.  If you are simply charged with under-age possession of alcohol — with no other charges — you may be eligible for a program in which your charge may be dismissed once you complete a program of community service and an alcohol education program.  About the only reason that you would NOT get in to that program would be if you have done it once before already.  You don’t need a lawyer to get into that program.  Charges such as using a fake ID are more troublesome — there are actually 3 different statutes under which someone might be charged, and you might think that it doesn’t matter much whether you are found guilty of one of them rather than the other.  But there is actually a great difference in how these different charges are handled and how they are viewed by the authorities later in life.  You should have a lawyer here.
  • Dating-related offenses — from date rape to stalking to harassing phone calls to computer trespass (hacking your ex’s e-mail, for example).   These are all charges that carry potential jail sentences, and you should not assume that just because you are a student, and have no prior record, that the police and prosecutors will not prosecute the case vigorously.  Students are sometimes amazed to learn that actions that they think of as “just boy-girl stuff” end up in court.  Acts that they didn’t think were seen as threatening — tweets, texts, angry phone calls, alcohol-induced angry phone calls — in fact made someone else feel threatened.  In one recent case that we had, two students had been carrying on a romantic (or at least a sexual) relationship.  When the relationship ended, the tweets and e-mails and text messages that had been welcome last week were now perceived as threatening this week.  The student was charged with offenses that, had be been convicted, would have made it difficult for him to pursue his chosen career.   It took a three-hour trial to get the charges thrown out.

We also assist — as much as school rules permit — with the defense of charges brought before the Honor Committee and the Judiciary Committee at the University of Virginia.  In most cases, we are not permitted to have any actual involvement in the case — we can’t appear at a hearing, for example.  But we can work with the student and his or her student counsel to draft answers to charging documents, to formulate defenses, and to think about how to cross-examine witnesses.  In these cases we are drawing on more than 30 years of working with how juries  react to evidence to help the student counsel understand the dynamics of the Honor or Judiciary trial.