Hazing: Fun or Felony?

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States all over the country have enacted anti-hazing laws aimed at putting an end to this age old college rite of passage. Florida’s anti-hazing law went into effect in July 2005. Since then, Tallahassee has criminally prosecuted hazing cases involving students from Florida A&M University (FAMU) and Florida State University (FSU). Two of the FAMU students, who were by all accounts leaders in their class, were found guilty and sentenced to prison; that case was ultimately overturned but the two aspiring professionals still spent over a year in prison. My law firm represented one of the students in the FSU case and we ultimately got it dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. Of course the case that is currently making national headlines right now is being prosecuted in Orlando and deals with the tragic death of Robert Champion, who was a member of the FAMU Marching 100. The public evidence, as it’s known to us now, seems to indicate that Mr. Champion was a willing participant to the hazing ritual but let me be clear, that is no defense to the law. Notwithstanding his apparent willingness, I think that we can all probably agree that Mr. Champion never possibly believed that it could end in such a disastrous and final result.

Florida’s prosecution of persons for hazing is a very real and very serious reality. Florida has instituted a zero tolerance policy for hazing. So what exactly is hazing? Hazing is defined as any action that recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student for the purpose of initiation or admission into an organization sanctioned by a college. It is a third degree felony if the hazing results in serious bodily injury or death, and a first degree misdemeanor if it creates a substantial risk of injury or death. Let me repeat – it is no defense that a person willingly participates in the hazing activity. Although there were no injuries to any pledge in the FSU case I defended, the State still prosecuted the students because it determined the acts created a substantial risk of injury. If the risk of being charged with a criminal offense isn’t deterrent enough, there is still your college’s student conduct code to deal with. For instance, FSU’s anti-hazing policy prohibits any activity which subjects a person to embarrassment or humiliation. That probably covers just about anything you can think of to do to a person just because he or she is pledging your sorority or fraternity. The lesson therefore is that you should never, ever engage in any form of hazing whatsoever- it’s just not worth it; not only because of the law but because of the potential unintended consequences.

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