Experienced Defense Counsel Serving Clients Throughout Central Pennsylvania

Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
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Concerns For Penn State Students

Addressing The Concerns Of Penn State Students

I am among the small minority of criminal defense attorneys in the world who can say that most of my clients are college students. When people meet a criminal defense attorney, they often ask things like, “How can you represent those vile criminals?” I have heard this question enough times to automatically retort: “Most of my clients are college students. They are just younger versions of me.”

Representing College Students

With an office just a short walk from campus, most of my clients are Penn State students, but a surprisingly large number consists of students from other schools who managed to get in trouble while visiting their Penn State friends. Another big part of my client base comprises the newly minted alumni, who return to Happy Valley to visit friends who are still in school or attend a football game.

A Criminal Charge Can Impact Your Future

As a college student, you face a unique set of issues that are of little concern to the conventional criminal defendant. With the conventional criminal defendant, our primary concern is usually reducing or eliminating prison time, while the primary concern for the college student is always protecting his or her record. Also, a minor offense has a much greater impact on a college student than on other people. There is a big difference in consequences for a “job guy” versus a “career guy.” For example, a summary offense conviction is of little importance to a skilled, blue collar worker. If you have a solid employment history, a forklift license or a commercial driver’s license, an employer will likely hire you even if you have a string of public drunkenness and disorderly conduct convictions on your record. Such is not the case for those seeking white collar employment or entry into grad school, where a premium is placed upon a clean record.

The approach of law enforcement has changed considerably since I went to Penn State in the early 1990s. When I was a student here, you were usually not going to get charged with underage drinking unless you presented a clear danger to yourself or others. Most RAs did not call the police when a resident smoked marijuana in the dorms. If you had a loud party, the police would usually just tell everyone to leave, rather than handing out citations and charging the host with furnishing alcohol to minors. Believe it or not, I went to Penn State for four years without knowing of a fellow student being charged with underage drinking at Penn State, and it is not like Gen Xers didn’t drink when we were young! People did get charged with underage drinking in their hometowns back then, but rarely in Happy Valley.

Penn State Has A Zero-Tolerance Policy

The days of police and RAs looking the other way are over. Penn State now has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs and alcohol, and for the most part, the local police forces have followed Penn State’s lead. Yet at the same time, Penn State students like to party just as much now as they did in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The inevitable result is that each year scores of students with bright futures find themselves charged with crimes. To make matters worse, it is far easier to look up someone’s record in the internet age than it was in the era of paper records kept in filing cabinets and musty archive basements.

Penn State May Also Punish You

In addition to concerns about your record, you may also face repercussions from Penn State. If you attend another school and get in trouble in Happy Valley, Penn State police may notify the Office of Student Conduct at your school, especially if you attend another Big Ten institution and you got in trouble on a football weekend. Penn State’s justice system is completely separate and independent from the criminal justice system. Thus, it is possible to be acquitted in criminal court, yet found to have violated the Code of Student Conduct. Having practiced in State College for some time, I am quite familiar with the Office of Student Conduct, while most out-of-town attorneys would have no experience with the Penn State disciplinary process.

Penn State Office Of Student Conduct

Ideally, you should meet with me before you have your first meeting with the Office of Student Conduct. An experienced attorney who knows both the people and policies of the Office of Student Conduct can often assist you in reducing any potential sanction or caution you against doing anything that might undermine your defense in your criminal case. I will let you know whether I should be present with you for the Office of Student Conduct meeting. If I already represent you in the underlying criminal case and I feel you would benefit from me being present at the student conduct meeting, I will not charge an additional fee. I just consider the student conduct aspect of your case to be part of the overall representation.

I have included more information about the Office of Student Conduct on my What Parents Need to Know page because in my experience, the parents are just as concerned about possible discipline by Penn State as are the students. And while we are on the subject of parents, I suggest that you inform your parents as soon as possible if you are charged with a crime or are the subject of an investigation. As disappointed and as upset as they will be, most parents will be supportive and try to help you. Also, you should be aware that if you are under age 24, Penn State will inform your parents of any conduct violation that could result in suspension or expulsion. If you receive an underage drinking citation, the police are required by law to inform your parents, even if you are over 18. If you are charged with a summary offense of misdemeanor by summons in the mail, the charges are normally sent to your home address, not your school address, unless you are a foreign student. Thus, it is better that your parents hear your version of events before they hear from Penn State, the police or the magisterial district court. Occasionally, there are cases in which a student simply cannot tell his or her parents. If that is the case, I will respect your situation and work with you.

Free Initial Consultations

Unlike other criminal defense lawyers, we do not charge an initial consultation fee. Call me today at 814-308-0870 or email me for a free initial consultation if you have been charged with a crime or believe you may be charged with a crime.