If you are a college student in New Jersey, you are no doubt aware of your school's code of conduct and the expectations the school has as far as your conduct, both on and off campus. New Jersey colleges and universities typically hold students to a high standard regarding their academics and ethics, and virtually all specifically claim that they expect students to follow all local, state, and federal laws and not engage in criminal activity.
If you are arrested and charged with a crime, such as theft, you can receive harsh repercussions from your school along with any criminal penalties you may face. Also, you can face administrative consequences from your college if you are arrested for a crime, whether or not the crime occurred on campus.
Dealing with criminal charges in any situation can be challenging, scary, and stressful. If you also face sanctions from your school, it can only add to the ordeal. Therefore, you need an attorney with both criminal defense and college student defense experience to help you get the best possible outcomes on both fronts.
Attorney Joseph Lento and the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense and Student Defense Team provide the best of both worlds. We have extensive experience defending college students against crimes and representing college students before administrative hearings with a strong record of success. If you were arrested and charged with theft, you should contact us immediately for a full evaluation of your case and help with devising an effective defense.
Understanding Theft Charges in New Jersey
New Jersey defines theft as unlawfully taking or disposing of both movable and immovable property from someone to deprive that person or take unlawful control over their property.
Movable property refers to any physical item or tangible asset, and immovable property refers to immovable items or intangible assets, such as money in a bank account.
The state also amended its theft code to include stealing packages delivered by a parcel service or cargo carrier from someone's residential property (stealing packages off someone's front porch, for instance).
A broad category, theft can involve any of the following crimes:
- Robbery and armed robbery
- Theft by extortion
- Theft by deception
- Theft of lost property or wrongly delivered property
- Theft of services
- Concealment of library materials
- Auto theft and carjacking
You can also face charges of theft if you receive any stolen property or if authorities find you in possession of burglary tools.
Levels of Theft Crimes: Grand Theft vs. Petty Theft
Theft crimes can be felonies or misdemeanors in New Jersey. Minor crimes (misdemeanors) are typically prosecuted as disorderly persons offenses, while more serious crimes (felonies) are indictable offenses. The specific charges you face will depend on numerous factors, including:
- The type of crime you allegedly committed
- The value of the property taken
- Whether it was your first or subsequent offense
- Whether you used a weapon
- Whether you committed the crime while committing another criminal offense
Petty theft is unlawfully taking property valued at less than $200. You will likely receive a disorderly persons offense and could receive up to six months in jail and fines up to $1,000.
By contrast, grand theft is taking property worth more than $200, and you could face a range of felony charges that include:
- Fourth-degree offense – The least serious of indictable offenses, a fourth-degree felony charge can result in up to 18 months in jail and fines up to $10,000
- Third-degree offense – You could receive three to five years in prison and fines of up to $15,000
- Second-degree offenses – These charges usually result from stealing property valued at $75,000 or more as well as by committing a more serious offense, such as robbery. You could face five to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $150,000.
- First-degree offense – The most serious of felony charges, you could receive a first-degree offense if you stole something while committing a violent crime like carjacking or armed robbery. Prison sentences can range from 10 to 20 years, and you may have to pay fines of up to $200,000.
Other factors can elevate the charges you receive, such as if you have a prior criminal record of theft. For example, if you have prior convictions for shoplifting and you were convicted of a third or subsequent theft offense, you will likely have to serve at least 90 days in jail, regardless of the value of the items you stole.
Likewise, if you used any form of violence when committing the crime, which can include merely threatening someone, you can face robbery charges that can lead to prison sentences of up to 10 years.
Other penalties you can receive include paying restitution or court costs to the victim, conducting community service, court-ordered counseling, loss of driving privileges, and other repercussions.
Theft on New Jersey College Campuses
Colleges and universities in New Jersey expect their students to abide by state, local, and federal laws, and colleges typically work with appropriate law enforcement to report and prosecute alleged crimes perpetrated by their students. For example, Rutgers University's code of student conduct states that “students may be held accountable for their behavior through both the criminal system and the University conduct process.”
Similarly, Princeton University states that the University may “call upon external authorities and…file charges or claims in the courts” along with taking disciplinary action internally against a student who violates campus laws.
Regarding theft specifically, Rutgers defines the offense as:
- Taking, or attempting to take, University, public, or private property without the owner's consent
- Obtaining University services through devious means
- Knowingly possessing University, public, or private property without an owner's consent
Princeton University prohibits “theft, unauthorized borrowing, or misappropriation of money, property, or services” or any attempt at such. If you find yourself in possession of stolen property, you should make every effort to alert authorities and return the stolen items. Otherwise, you can face criminal prosecution along with sanctions from the school.
Why Having a Criminal Defense Attorney Is So Important
Having an experienced criminal defense attorney represent you for theft charges is of utmost importance, especially if it is your first offense. New Jersey offers diversionary programs for first-time offenders arrested for non-violent theft crimes, including:
- Pre-trial intervention – You can complete an intervention program that lasts between one to three years. The program may include community service and paying restitution, along with court-ordered drug or alcohol therapy and other treatment recommendations. Upon successful completion, you may avoid both felony and misdemeanor convictions on your record.
- Conditional dismissal – If it is your first offense and you were charged with a disorderly persons offense, you may petition for conditional dismissal of the charges. The program typically lasts for 12 months but may be extended, and you will have to pay restitution, court costs, and other required monetary penalties. However, you may avoid having a conviction on your record.
For all other offenses, you will likely have to go to trial. You will need a criminal defense attorney to fight for you and present a compelling defense to create doubt in the jurors' minds. A lawyer will advocate strongly for you throughout all proceedings and may conduct any of the following methods to help you get favorable results:
- Petition the court for an unsecured bond and quick release from custody so you can continue your academic studies and actively participate in your defense
- Examine all evidence against you and request the court exclude or suppress certain evidence
- Request any exonerating evidence be included in your defense
- File pre-trial motions to protect your constitutional rights and privileges and help you obtain favorable bond conditions
An attorney can also file post-trial motions to mitigate the sentences you receive or to challenge the verdict and move for dismissal or acquittal. They can also file requests for appeals if judicial misconduct or procedural errors led to a guilty verdict or otherwise unduly influenced the outcome of the trial.
How Colleges Deal With Code of Conduct Violations
Regardless of the New Jersey college or university you attend, your school will likely follow a standard process for handling complaints and criminal charges against students. The process typically involves the school receiving a complaint against you directly from another student, a private resident, or a faculty or administration member of the school.
The school will then investigate the complaint and decide how best to handle the situation. For serious criminal charges like theft (or certainly robbery), the school will likely conduct a formal hearing to determine your guilt. The school will also usually work alongside local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies to bring formal criminal charges against you.
The school will send you a letter that details the code of conduct violation you are alleged to have committed, along with basic information regarding the date and time of the administrative hearing.
At the formal administrative hearing, you will be presented with the allegations against you as defined in the formal complaint, as well as evidence to support to allegations. The process is similar to an initial appearance in criminal court, and you will be given the opportunity to defend yourself.
However, college administrative hearings differ from court hearings in that they are far more subjective, and schools typically do not have the high burden of proof to find you guilty as prosecutors do in courts of law.
For instance, a college may waive certain protections afforded by criminal courts, such as those involving self-incrimination, searches and seizures, the right to privacy, and the right to free legal counsel. Your college will not appoint an attorney for you, but you have the right to have an attorney present and represent you during the administrative hearing and during all administrative procedures. You will, however, have to retain a lawyer at your own expense.
At the hearing, all parties involved may submit evidence and call witnesses, and both sides may challenge any evidence or testimony presented. The administrative board, led by a hearing officer or board chairperson, will consider all evidence and arguments and determine your guilt based on the likelihood you committed the offense. The administrative board does not need proof you actually committed the offense to find you guilty and impose sanctions like a court of law would.
Sanctions and Other Consequences the College Can Impose
If the administrative board finds you guilty of theft, the hearing officer or board chair will recommend consequences. Colleges typically impose sanctions on students found in violation of the code of conduct, which can include:
- Disciplinary probation
- Withholding your degree
- Suspension or suspension with conditions
- Performing campus service
- Removal from university housing
- Restricted access to university spaces, resources, and activities
Like with criminal penalties, you may also have to pay restitution, and the college may require you to attend therapy or criminal diversion programs. You should also understand that any sanctions you receive from your school will be in conjunction with any criminal penalties you receive for the underlying theft charge.
Requesting an Appeal of the Board's Ruling
Although college administrative hearings differ in many respects from criminal courts, you may still request an appeal of the board's ruling if you feel any of the following applies:
- Judicial or administrative misconduct or procedural mistakes affected the ruling
- New evidence surfaced since the hearing that could impact the ruling or alter the board's decision
Also, colleges must adhere to due process and provide a fair and impartial hearing for students accused of code of conduct violations. If you and your attorney feel the administrative board did not do this or infringed upon your constitutional rights during the process, you may file a request for a new hearing.
After your attorney files a request for appeals with your school's Appellate Board or similar office, the board will review the matter and decide whether to accept the original ruling or return your case back to the administrative board for a new hearing. The results of the disciplinary hearing will not become final until all appeals have been resolved.
Get Help from An Experienced New Jersey Student Defense Attorney
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm's Student Defense Team offer a unique blend of successful criminal defense experience and experience defending college students against administrative actions. We can review your case, advise you of your options, and fight hard to assert your rights and help you get the best outcome possible.