College can be a time of learning, exploration and growth. But it's also a time of parties, pranks and poor decisions (even for good kids) — and it's not all just "harmless fun."
We've heard the horror stories. A young person heads off to college, excited about his or her newfound freedom, and gets into trouble. 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. Likewise, when parents hear those stories, they think, "Not my kid," But what if they're wrong?
The reality, says attorney J. Tom Morgan, is that college provides a lot of opportunity, temptation and responsibility that most kids and parents are unprepared for and, legally speaking, 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). "And if he breaks the wrong law, he can face ramifications that may alter the course of his life."
Morgan and his coauthor wrote their book to prevent young people from inadvertently getting into this kind of serious trouble. Ignorance Is No Defense goes into great detail about laws concerning the most common offenses among college students in North Carolina.
Parents of college-bound students should talk with them about 10 legal realities they need to know.
1. Remind your child that if you're 16 or older, you're considered an adult in North Carolina and can be tried accordingly. This applies to both in-state and out-of-state students. North Carolina is the only state in the country where 16-year-olds are required to be tried as adults.
2. Tell your child to 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. Using a fake ID to gain admission to a bar or nightclub where alcohol is served or to purchase alcohol is a misdemeanor. Using an actual ID that belongs to someone else is a felony.
3. Young people need to know the law before taking a sip. Most students know 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. If students are busted drinking beer, they may face different charges than they would if they were drinking bourbon. In any case of underage drinking, Morgan explains, the young person risks losing his license for one year. Also, if a student is underage at a party where alcohol is being served, an officer has probable cause to believe everyone is drinking and can arrest everyone.
4. Think twice before inviting friends over for a party. If underage drinking occurs, the host can be arrested and charged with unlawful furnishing of alcohol to minors and aiding and abetting a crime. This means possible jail time and a one-year revocation of the driver's license. Also, North Carolina has what is called social host liability. That means that if a person who's been drinking at your child's bash gets in an accident on the way home, your child could be found liable for any damages.
5. Be cautious about hook-ups. If a student stumbles out of a party with a more-than-tipsy new friend, it can mean big trouble. In North Carolina, if a young person hooks up with someone who is seriously drunk and they have sex, the intoxicated party may be able to file charges for rape, a felony charge with a minimum of 58 months in prison.
6. The Internet is full of legal pitfalls. Kids are living a large portion of their lives online, but most of them don't realize that what may seem like a harmless e-mail, Facebook comment, instant message or text message can result in a criminal charge of cyberstalking. Sending threatening e-mails, repeatedly communicating with someone after he has rebuffed the contact, or sending numerous text messages can all result in a misdemeanor charge.
7. Sticky fingers can mean a stiff penalty. For most college students, a part-time job is a necessity. 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. In fact, in North Carolina, it's considered a felony.
8. Hazing isn't fun and games. For many students, joining an organized school group, like a fraternity, sorority, athletic team or club, is an important part of their college experience. But the hazing that often goes along with the experience can land you a misdemeanor conviction. Hazing is committed when any student subjects another student to physical injury as part of an initiation, and it's against the law.
9. If things get out of hand, walk away. With alcohol flowing, it's not uncommon for celebrations to turn ugly. If your child finds himself in the middle of an escalating confrontation, he can't assume he can claim self-defense for fighting back. The truth, says Morgan, is that self-defense is not as easy to prove as you might think.
10. Remember, "I didn't mean to" is not a valid excuse. "What students need to understand is that decisions they make during their college years can seriously impact their futures long after they've said goodbye to dorm rooms and frat parties," Morgan concludes.
J. Tom Morgan is a nationally recognized expert on crimes involving young people and has appeared on CNN's Talk Back Live, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Court TV, the Today show and 48 Hours. Wilson Parker is a professor at Wake Forest School of Law. He is an expert teacher and scholar in the area of constitutional law. Their book, Ignorance Is No Defense, A College Student's Guide to North Carolina Law, is available at www.IgnoranceIsNoDefense.com/nc and Amazon.com.