All colleges and universities in New Jersey have codes of conduct students must follow, and they cover areas such as academic dishonesty and student behavior on campus. However, colleges also expect their students to adhere to all state, local, and federal laws, and any student arrested or convicted of a crime, such as trespassing, can face harsh sanctions from their school along with serious legal consequences.
In many cases, you don't have to commit a crime on campus to face disciplinary action from your school, and you can place your academic future in jeopardy if you run afoul of the law under any circumstances. Therefore, it is so important to work with an attorney who has experience defending college students against disciplinary action as well as criminal defense experience to help you understand your rights and fight hard to protect your future.
Attorney Joseph Lento and the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team offer a unique blend of criminal defense experience and college student defense experience to help you address the legal and administrative issues you may face from local and state authorities as well as your school. If you face charges for criminal trespassing, you can contact us for a complete and objective evaluation of your case and help in getting the best outcomes possible.
What Is Criminal Trespassing in New Jersey?
New Jersey state code N.J.S.A. 2C:18-3 defines criminal trespassing as entering any structure unlawfully or without the proper licenses or authorization. The code breaks down the offense into three separate violations that include:
- Unlicensed entry of structures – Refers to entering any research facility, structure, or separately secured or occupied portion of a building. The crime is a fourth-degree offense (felony) in the following circumstances:
- You commit the crime on school property
- You commit the crime in a dwelling
- You commit the crime on any utility company property, such as water treatment facilities, power generating facilities, public sewage treatment facilities, or any facilities that generate or handle hazardous waste or chemicals.
Otherwise, the crime is a disorderly persons offense.
- Defiant trespasser – A disorderly persons offense where you unlawfully enter a property or remain at a property after receiving notice to leave. Notices can come from the property owner actually telling you not to enter or posting signs around the property to inform you that trespassing is prohibited. It also includes scenarios where you scale or cut through a fence or other enclosure designed to keep out intruders.
- Peering into windows or other openings of dwellings – You can face fourth-degree felony charges if you peer into a dwelling where people are present with the purpose of invading their privacy.
Penalties for fourth-degree offenses can include up to 18 months in jail and up to $10,000 in fines. For disorderly persons offenses, you can receive up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.
Affirmative Defenses to Trespassing
New Jersey's laws provide several affirmative defenses to trespassing that include:
- The structure was abandoned.
- The structure was open to the public at the time, and you complied with all “lawful conditions” for accessing or remaining in the structure.
- You reasonably believed that the property owner would have allowed you to enter or remain in the property.
An experienced defense attorney can review your case and help you determine if you qualify for any affirmative defenses, and they can work to protect your rights and fight to help you get a favorable outcome if an affirmative defense does not apply to you.
Trespassing on New Jersey Colleges
As you walk around your college campus, you will likely see several doors or areas marked with signs that say, “Restricted Area,” “Authorized Personnel Only,” or “No Unauthorized Entry.” You may also see fences and other enclosures with signs that read “No Trespassing.”
Many colleges and universities have laboratories that contain harmful or hazardous materials and chemicals, and institutions also worry about unauthorized individuals gaining access to sensitive intellectual property and other important information the school wants to keep private. Getting caught in any of these types of areas without proper authorization can lead to disciplinary action from the school as well as criminal charges, and you will need an experienced criminal defense and student defense attorney on your side if you are caught (and arrested) for trespassing.
Also, several cases have occurred throughout the years in which colleges have charged students with trespassing for conducting sit-ins and other forms of peaceful protest. You can also face trespassing charges if you are a former student banned from the college and you return to the campus.
All New Jersey colleges and universities expect their students to abide by state, local, and federal laws. 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.” Likewise, 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.
Princeton University prohibits “unauthorized entry into restrictive spaces,” as well as “other behaviors that clearly disrupt and disrespect the working and/or living conditions of others.” Rutgers does not mention trespassing specifically, but its student code of conduct contains several statutes that can be used to prosecute trespassers, and the university can always defer the matter to local authorities to have you arrested and charged with either a disorderly persons offense or a fourth-degree felony for trespassing.
Additionally, some students face charges for trespassing simply because they were on campus but could not provide their college ID to prove they were enrolled.
The Importance of a Criminal Defense Attorney
Just because you were arrested for trespassing does not mean you will be convicted. You have the right to defend yourself, and a criminal defense attorney can help by asserting your rights, challenging the evidence school administration and police have against you, and fighting to help you get the best outcome possible.
Some methods a defense attorney may use to help you include:
- Petitioning for an unsecured bond and quick release from custody so you can continue your academic studies and take part in your defense
- Examining all evidence and requesting certain evidence to be excluded or suppressed
- Requesting exonerating evidence to be included
- Filing pre-trial motions to protect your constitutional rights and privileges
If your case goes to trial, you will need an attorney on your side to advocate on your behalf during court proceedings and present a compelling defense to create reasonable doubt in jurors' minds. A lawyer can also file post-trial motions to mitigate the sentences you receive, and they can file requests for appeals if judicial misconduct or procedural errors led to a guilty verdict.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team have many years of experience defending New Jersey college students accused of trespassing and other serious criminal offenses. He has also helped numerous college students in New Jersey get positive results for disciplinary actions by advocating for the student before administrative review boards.
How Colleges Handle Code of Conduct Violations
All New Jersey colleges and universities follow specific processes for handling complaints against students, and most often, the process involves:
- The school receives a formal complaint against the student regarding a specific offense or list of offenses. The complaints usually go through the school's Office of Student Conduct or similar office, and they can come from another student, a member of the school's faculty or administration, or from a private citizen.
- The school investigates the complaint and determines how to best handle the situation. For relatively minor complaints, the school can hold an informal review, but for more serious cases, the school will require the student to go before an administrative board for a formal hearing
- If necessary, and depending on the nature of the offense, the school may also work with law enforcement to bring formal charges against the student.
If you have been accused of a code of conduct violation, you will receive notification of the violation, which will likely be a formal letter from the school. The notice will contain basic information about the alleged offense along with the date and time of an administrative hearing.
Administrative hearings are similar to court hearings, and you will be presented with allegations of wrongdoing included in the complaint along with evidence as to your alleged involvement in the offense. You also have the right to answer the charges and tell your side of the story to defend yourself.
However, college administrative hearings are different from court proceedings in that the adjudication process is often times more subjective, and a school typically has a much lower burden of proof to find you guilty than a court of law.
Also, you may not be able to rely on certain constitutional rights as you would in court, and schools may waive certain protections regarding self-incrimination, searches and seizures, the right to privacy, and others. Like in court, anything you say can be used against you, and you have the right to have an attorney-adviser present to represent you in the process.
Schools will not appoint an attorney for you like courts will, so you will have to retain an attorney at your own expense. But an experienced student defense attorney can help your defense and improve your odds of getting a successful outcome.
During the hearing, you and the other parties will submit evidence and call witnesses, and either side may challenge any evidence or testimony the other side presents. The administrative board will then determine your guilt based on the likelihood that you violated the code or committed the offense, as opposed to having a jury determine your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, the board needs only a majority of votes to find you guilty. The board's hearing officer acts as the judge for the proceedings, and after deciding your guilt, they will make suggestions regarding sanctions or other consequences.
College Sanctions and Other Consequences
If they find you guilty, the administrative board and hearing officer will recommend consequences. Colleges typically impose sanctions on students found in violation of the code of conduct, which can include:
- Disciplinary probation
- Suspension with conditions
- Withholding your degree
Any sanctions the college imposes will be in addition to the legal penalties you will receive if convicted. Additionally, you may receive other consequences that accompany any sanctions you receive, such as:
- Performing campus service (similar to community service)
- Removal from university housing
- Restricted access to university spaces, resources, and activities
You may also have to pay restitution, especially if you damaged property during the trespass, or the school may require you to attend therapy or criminal diversion programs.
Appealing the Board's Ruling
Just as in courts of law, you can appeal an administrative board's ruling. Appeals are usually only granted in cases where procedural errors, judicial misconduct, or other administrative mistakes affected the ruling. You may also request an appeal if new evidence surfaced since the hearing that would impact or alter the board's decision.
Your attorney will file a request for appeals with your school's Appellate Board or similar office. The board will then review the matter and decide whether to accept the original ruling or return the 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.
Hire an Experienced New Jersey Student Defense Attorney for Help
Combining the best of both worlds, attorney Joseph D. Lento has extensive criminal defense experience as well as years of experience defending college students before administrative boards. He can review your case, advise you of your options, and help you devise an effective defense strategy.