Before the typical student arrives at college, he has seen scores of movies glorifying the drunken debauchery and mayhem of fraternity life. In movies like "Revenge of the Nerds" or "Animal House," the impressionable, teen viewer is shown that laws do not apply to fraternities and sororities. Such films have a long cinematic tradition, and many are quite funny, but in the real world, fraternity pranks often lead to the filing of criminal charges. As a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, I deal with such cases first hand.
A classic prank involves sneaking into a rival fraternity and stealing one of its composite pictures. Prank or not, this is a burglary, criminal trespass and theft by unlawful taking, and if the perpetrators are caught, that is exactly what they will be charged with. Burglary of a residence is a first degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years in state prison and a $25,000 fine. Even if a defendant has no prior record, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines call for one or two years in state prison, should victims be present in the residence at the time of the burglary.
"It was just a prank" is not a defense we can raise at trial, and I have had to explain this to frantic students and parents on more than one occasion. The DA will not simply drop the charges because it was just a prank, nor will a judge give the jury at the end of trial the following instruction: "Ladies and gentleman of the jury, if you find that Mr. Defendant entered the residence of another with the intent to commit the crime of theft, you must find him not guilty if you conclude that it was just a prank."
Even if we ultimately manage to have the burglary dropped or dismissed, it is still on your record in the mean time until we can get it expunged. Most employers are not going to want to hear an explanation as to why you have a burglary on your record. You just are not going to get a white collar job with that type of charge on your record unless your family owns the company.
Another classic prank is to tamper with the homecoming float of a rival fraternity. This can be charged as criminal mischief or perhaps a theft by unlawful taking, if part of the float is stolen. The grading of the offense will depend upon the value of the property stolen or tampered with, but such charges are usually summary offenses or misdemeanors. The penalties tend to be fines or probation rather than jail time. Homecoming Week at Penn State just so happens to coincide with a time of year when the State College Police heavily patrol the frat district, hence greatly enhancing one's chances of getting caught. In fact, the very reason I know about the various fraternity pranks is because I have represented more than a few young men who have faced criminal charges over what they thought were mere pranks.
As bad as it is to be charged with a serious felony like burglary, or even misdemeanors like criminal mischief or theft, we usually are able to achieve better outcomes in fraternity prank cases than in other cases with the same or similar charges. The simple reason is that the police and DA's Office take into account the feelings of victims when deciding upon how to resolve a case. Because the victims themselves are other fraternities, they tend not to scream for blood. The old adage is that those in glass houses should not throw stones. The victim frat knows that eventually some of its own brothers will get into a jam over some prank as well, so it is a good policy to forgive one's trespassers. Even if a positive outcome is a strong possibility, I can assure you that you do not want to be charged in the first place, so think long and hard before engaging in a "mere prank."
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, who often represents students in fraternity and sorority-related criminal cases. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Theft-and-Property-Crimes.shtml