College students rarely consider the consequences of their actions. They are too busy trying to make friends, studying, and working through the stress of being responsible for themselves. Sometimes though, that stress can become overwhelming and cause them to act out of turn. If a student is accused of destroying property, whether it is school property or another person's personal property, the school can bring disciplinary action against them. They also can share this information with local law enforcement, who may choose to bring their own criminal charges against a student.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and Lento Law Firm have experienced student criminal defense attorneys who appreciate how complex these accusations can be. Not only do you have to bring a strong defense to your school's disciplinary hearing, but you also have to put forward an equally strong argument in criminal court. Having a qualified attorney to defend you at both appearances is unparalleled. Call Lento Law Firm today.
Crime Detection on New Jersey Campuses
All college campuses experience crime at one time or another. Students are constantly being pressured to succeed, reminded of how much adult life costs, and forced to navigate relationships with their peers and university faculty. With so much stress, it's a wonder more students do not act out.
The schools in New Jersey are dedicated to protecting their students and their property from becoming victims of other peoples' actions. As such, campuses are covered in security cameras, blue light emergency phones, and patrolling campus security and police. If a student is accused of property damage on a New Jersey campus, it is generally because they were either caught in the act, caught near the scene, or caught on security footage. Depending on the severity of the destruction, this footage is shared with local law enforcement.
Having a student criminal defense attorney in your corner from the moment you learn of these accusations can help mitigate the difficulty of negotiating these charges on your own.
New Jersey Destruction of Property Crimes
New Jersey state has three distinct property destruction laws. If your commit any of these acts on campus, local law enforcement and your school will share the evidence, and both bring charges against you.
In New Jersey, criminal mischief is defined as either:
- Intentionally or knowingly damaging another person's tangible property,
- Recklessly or negligently destroying another person's property when using dangerous means or explosives, or
- Purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly tampering with another person's tangible property to endanger a person or property.
The criminal degree being charged will depend largely on the circumstances surrounding the incident and the amount of loss suffered. For damages valued less than $500, the student will only be charged with a disorderly person offense, which carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
If the damages are between $500 and $2,000, it is considered fourth-degree criminal mischief; the penalty may be up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
For damages of $2,000 or more, or if the act causes a substantial disruption of a public utility, communication system, or research facility, or the property lost was used at a research facility, the student will be charged with third-degree criminal mischief. Third-degree criminal mischief carries a potential sentence of up to 3 to five years in a state penitentiary and up to $15,000 in fines.
Second-degree criminal mischief is the most severe charge of criminal mischief. If the property destruction causes a substantial interruption or impairment that recklessly leads to death, a student can be penalized with 5 to 10 years in a New Jersey State Prison and fined up to $150,000.
Causing or Risking Widespread Injury or Damage
Under the criminal offense of causing or risking widespread injury or damage, the defendant's actions must have caused serious bodily injury to at least five people or damaged five or more units in a building usually occupied by 25 people or more.
For this crime to be adjudicated as a fourth-degree criminal offense, the person must have recklessly created a risk of widespread injury or damage – even if an injury or damage does not occur. Additionally, this crime is considered a fourth-degree offense if the accused student had been under an official contract or other legal duty that required them to take steps to prevent widespread injury or damage and they failed to do so, or they did know they were supposed to take such steps and they agreed to act anyways which caused, or threatened to cause, the injury or damage.
Under a third-degree criminal offense, the individual either caused widespread injury or damage or created a risk of widespread injury or damage because they recklessly handled, stored, or abandoned hazardous materials or waste.
For a student to be convicted of a second-degree criminal offense under this statute, they must have purposefully or knowingly, unlawfully, caused a seriously egregious, widespread injury or damage in any manner or triggered an explosion, flood, or avalanche; collapsed a building; or released or abandoned poisonous gas, radioactive materials, or any other harmful or destructive substance.
Under New Jersey law, there are two types of arson – aggravated arson and arson.
Aggravated arson is a second-degree offense and is defined as starting a fire or causing an explosion:
- With the intent of placing another person in danger of death or bodily harm;
- Intentionally destroying someone else's building or structure;
- To purposely collect insurance, but the fire recklessly places another person in danger of death or bodily injury;
- To deliberately destroy or damage a structure in a way that puts a person in danger of death or bodily injury, to keep the structure, completely or partially, out of the purview of State, county, or local zoning, planning, or building laws; or
- With the purpose of destroying or damaging a forest.
Non-aggravated arson, on the other hand, is a third degree-offense where a person purposely starts a fire or triggers an explosion:
- That recklessly put another person in danger of bodily injury or death;
- That recklessly places a building or structure in danger of damage or destruction;
- To deliberately collect insurance monies;
- To purposely destroy or damage a structure to keep it exempt, completely or partially, from State, county, or local zoning, planning, or building laws; or
- Recklessly putting a forest in danger of destruction or damage.
Additionally, students can be accused of arson if they fail to control or report a dangerous fire or if they pay or accept payment, directly or indirectly, for starting a fire or causing an explosion. For crimes where payment is exchanged, the student could be charged with a first-degree arson offense.
Destruction of Property on New Jersey College Campuses
Colleges and universities have specific ways of dealing with the destruction of property allegations, but for the most part, they all agree that if a student is accused of destroying the university's property, or the property of another person, the matter should be fully investigated and penalized.
At Thomas Edison State University, property damage is explained in the nonacademic code of conduct and covers:
- Misappropriation/misuse of or damage to university property; intentionally or negligently damaging university property; or infecting networks, programs, or other electronic media or systems with viruses or causing them to malfunction or break.
- Damaging another person's property or causing them to fear damage to their property; creating conditions that endanger or threaten a person's health, safety, or well-being or that would cause damage to property; or possessing, distributing, or using weapons like firearms or explosives on university property.
False Reports of Hazing on New Jersey College Campuses
College administrations and law enforcement both seek to provide a safe community for students, faculty, and staff. When a student is accused of damaging property on campus, it is adjudicated fully, which takes time and resources. These resources are paid for by local taxpayers and other students (or really their parents). As such, if the university or police discover that a student has been falsely accused out of retaliation, spite, or vindictiveness, they will drop all charges and bring false incrimination charges against the accuser.
Defending New Jersey Property Damage Charges
When you are charged with one of the destruction of property crimes described above (criminal mischief, arson, or causing or risking widespread injury or damage), a student criminal defense attorney can help you navigate both your on-campus disciplinary action and your off-campus criminal charges.
To prove your guilt in criminal court, the prosecution must show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant intentionally or knowingly damaged someone else's property. Thus, to defend an accused student, the defense team must prove that defendant didn't intentionally damage someone else's property.
If there was no intent to act, but the property damage was the result of an accident, the student defendant cannot be convicted of property damage. Likewise, if the prosecution cannot prove that you knowingly engaged in conduct that caused widespread injury or damage or that you purposefully started a fire or triggered an explosion, you cannot be convicted of property damage in New Jersey.
Attorney Lento is an extremely knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who will work tirelessly to find and exploit gaps in the prosecution's argument, providing you with a strong and unmatched defense.
New Jersey Campus Property Damage Disciplinary Procedures
Every school has a particular way of resolving accusations of property damage. At Rutgers University, students are notified of the accusations against them, and the Conduct Officer will initiate an investigation into the matter. Once the Conduct Officer completes the investigation, they will decide whether the matter should be dropped or if an administrative conference or a university hearing is necessary.
In an administrative conference at Rutgers, the Conduct Officer will meet with both the student and the complainant and review all available information. Depending on their findings, they will decide what charges and sanctions should be applied to the student.
If the sanctions do not include separation from the university or loss of housing, the Conduct Officer can impose sanctions on his own. But if the Conduct Officer finds that the student should be separated from the university or lose their housing, they must refer the matter to a university hearing unless the student agrees with their decision.
The University Hearing Board will oversee the university hearing and ask the complainant to explain the incident. The accused student will then have a chance to present their side of the story, including evidence and witnesses to help defend themselves. The University Hearing Board will review both parties' witnesses and evidence and determine whether the accused student is responsible for the destruction of property. If they are, the University Hearing Board will also impose sanctions on the student.
If the student does not agree with any of these punishments, they can appeal to the Campus Appeal Committee. Appeals must be made, in writing, within ten working days from the date they learned of the decision of responsibility. Additionally, appeals can only be made on the following grounds:
- The Conduct Officer or the University Hearing Board's decision is not supported by the facts of the case.
- The university hearing disciplinary process was not conducted fairly and did not follow university procedures, and this error greatly affected the fairness of the process.
- There is new evidence available now that was not available before, and that is enough to change the original decision.
- The sanction imposed is disproportionate to the offense committed.
How a Qualified Student Defense Attorney Can Help
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and Lento Law Firm have spent their careers helping students across the country navigate both on-campus disciplinary proceedings and off-campus criminal charges. Call 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation today or visit us online.