Penn State students have a long tradition of daytime parties on the first warm Saturday of spring, but such a party last Saturday at Penn State Altoona has led to felony riot charges being filed against 12 students, after Logan Township Police claim the party got out of hand. Police estimate that between 800 to 1,000 people were partying in the parking lot of Nittany Pointe when they arrived to break it up. Angry partiers threw bottles at the police, but no charges against the bottle throwers have been filed yet. Should these people be identified, they can expect to be charged with propulsion of missile, simple assault and aggravated assault. Because a thrown bottle can be a deadly weapon, their sentences would be more severe than usual, should they be convicted.
Most people know what a riot is when they see it, but are unsure of the exact legal definition. "Riot" is a third degree felony under Pennsylvania law, and defined as a group of three or more people, engaging in the course of disorderly conduct, 1) with the intent to commit or facilitate the commission of a felony or misdemeanor, or 2) with the intent to prevent or coerce official action or 3) an actor uses a firearm, or has knowledge that another actor is using or planning to use a firearm or other deadly weapon during an episode of disorderly conduct involving three or more people. Thus, the definition is broad enough to constitute any behavior the general public would consider to be rioting.
Ironically, the student facing the most serious charges was neither drinking nor rioting in any traditional sense of the word. Police allege that 19 year old Kevin Nelson sat on his porch and played guitar, in defiance of a police order to go inside his apartment. The police then responded by force, and claim that Nelson resisted arrest and assaulted a police officer. Of the 12 young people charges with riot, Nelson was the only one also charged with aggravated assault, a second degree felony punishable by up to five to ten years incarceration and a $25,000 fine. Riot is punishable by up to 3.5 to seven years incarceration and a $15,000 fine.
Interestingly enough, Nelson's friends made a video of the incident, which was shown in part on WJAC News. Unless there is more to the video than shown by Channel 6, the video seems to call into question police claims that Nelson was actively resisting arrest, but ultimately, a judge or jury would have to make that determination, should this case go to trial.
Matt McClenahen is a Penn State alumnus and criminal defense attorney in State College, PA. http://www.mattmlaw.com/About-Attorney-McClenahen/