Pennsylvania Senate Attempts to Increase Penalties for Hazing
While not exclusively limited to young people and college students, hazing has recently come under scrutiny in both the media and the criminal justice system, especially when alcohol is involved. Unfortunately, this high risk behavior can result in catastrophic results, including serious bodily injuries and death. Consequently, many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, have passed laws that criminalize not only the act of hazing, but also the encouragement and facilitation of hazing. When hazing occurs, an organization such as a fraternity or sorority may be held liable for any damages; and, in some cases, individual members may face severe penalties that including incarceration, payment of fines, and a permanent record of criminal conviction. When charges with hazing or conspiracy to commit hazing, retaining the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney can provide the opportunity to avoid the potentially severe penalties, Recently, a Pennsylvania State University student entered a guilty plea to charges relating to the death of a fraternity pledge member. As a result of the death of the pledge member, the Pennsylvania Senate has proposed a bill to increase the penalties for violations of Pennsylvania’s hazing statute. A discussion of the current Pennsylvania hazing statute, and what the proposed enhancements can mean, will follow below.
Hazing Law in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, hazing is defined as an action or situation which recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a person, or which willfully destroys or removes public or private property, for the purpose of initiation or admission into or affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in, any organization. The statute also provides the following as examples of hazing:
- Any brutality of a physical nature, such as whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the elements, forced consumption of any food, liquor, drug or other substance;
- Any forced physical activity which could adversely affect the physical health and safety of an individual;
- Any activity which would subject an individual to extreme mental stress, such as sleep deprivation, forced exclusion from social contact, forced conduct which could result in extreme embarrassment;
- Any forced activity which could adversely affect the mental health or dignity of the individual; or
- Any willful destruction or removal of public or private property.
Typically, hazing is typically described as a voluntary activity that an individual chooses to subject himself/herself in an effort to become a member of a group. However, the Pennsylvania statute specifically notes that, if the activity is considered to be a condition for admission into a group, then that activity will be considered to be forced, regardless of the individual’s willingness.
Under current Pennsylvania law, hazing is classified as a third-degree misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail, a fine of $2,500, or both.
Proposed Hazing Enhancement
The Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law, named for the victim in the Pennsylvania State University case mentioned above, creates the following “tiers” for hazing:
- If no bodily injury resulted, hazing is a summary offense, which would entail a punishment of only a fine.
- If the hazing resulted in bodily injury, the current penalty would remain, namely, up to 1 year in jail, a fine of $2,500, or both.
- If the hazing resulted in serious bodily injury or death, the crime would be a third-degree felony, i.e., having a maximum penalty of 7 years of imprisonment in a state corrections institution, a fine of $15,000.00,or both.
Additionally, the proposed law will subject organizations to the same tier-related criminal liability if there is a knowing, voluntary, or reckless promotion of hazing. In such circumstances, court-ordered sanctions may include forfeiture of any property involved in the hazing. Finally, the proposed law adds a provision for the liability of higher educational institutions, which can be fined between $5,000 and $15,000 for each hazing offense committed under the auspices of a student organization.
Seek Legal Advice
If you have been charged with violation of Pennsylvania’s hazing statute, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. It is critically important to secure competent and effective legal representation to not only explore your legal options, but to also be proactive in determining the best strategies and tactics to achieve your goals of mitigating charges or reducing the severity of potential penalties. Attorney Gary E. Gerson has the knowledge and experience to work with you to achieve the best possible outcome for your specific case. Contact our Pittsburgh office today.