Shane’s Top Ten Rules for Avoiding Trouble as a College Student

January 1, 2016 | By Shane Phelps Law
Shane’s Top Ten Rules for Avoiding Trouble as a College Student

I handle criminal cases all over Texas, but my office and principal criminal defense practice are in the Bryan/College Station area, home of Texas A&M University and Blinn College. Between these two institutions, there are close to 65,000 (you read that right) students living and going to school here. As you might imagine, young college students sometimes make the wrong judgment calls and find themselves in trouble. That’s where I come in.

Over the past five years of my criminal defense practice, I have represented, and continue to represent, hundreds of young college students. I do everything I can ethically to help put these young students in the best position I can as they go forward into their lives after college. Sometimes that means getting their cases dismissed if possible, sometimes it means trying their cases before a jury or judge, and sometimes it means negotiating the best resolution that leads to an expunction or non-disclosure.

In the course of representing these young students, I have noticed very obvious similarities or patterns to their cases. I mentioned this to a parent recently and he asked me to send him suggestions he can share with his son to help minimize the chances that his son gets in trouble while at A&M. I shared with him my “top ten” ways for students to stay out of trouble in Bryan/College Station while attending school here. I am now sharing them with you.

Some of these cautions are common sense and most kids know them in theory. Several of them are not intuitive and sometimes kids just don't know how serious the consequences can be for what seems like minor conduct. Some of these rules might be perceived as politically incorrect. I can pretty much state without equivocation, however, that if a student follows these suggestions, he or she will lessen significantly his or her chances of jeopardizing their future while here in Bryan/College Station.

Here, then, are my top ten rules for getting out of college without being arrested:

1) Stay the hell out of Northgate.

Northgate is the bar and entertainment district adjacent to the A&M campus and it is wildly popular with students, under-age and of-age. Almost every time I speak with parents about the trouble their child has gotten into, the conversation starts with "He was in Northgate...." There are several law enforcement agencies that patrol this district on foot, in patrol cars, on bikes, and undercover (CSPD, TAMU PD, TABC, etc). They are, to my mind, overly aggressive in targeting and arresting or citing students for offenses ranging from public intoxication, minor in possession/consumption, failure to identify to an officer, evading arrest, and a host of other offenses. These law enforcement officers will stop a person, either on foot or in a car, for the most minor traffic infractions (failure to signal 100 feet before a turn, failure to signal a lane change, seat belt violation, and so on), just to see if they smell alcohol on the breath or the odor of marihuana emitting from a car window. They even know the best vantage points in the parking garages to stage themselves so that they can see into cars as they exit around last call and will stop for any violation, or even if they just see a red solo cup in a car. It is easy to get stopped in Northgate, so the best practice is to just steer clear of the area entirely. If they can't, following the rest of the top ten will minimize the chances of being arrested.

2) Do not carry a fake ID or someone else's ID.

If a student is stopped for any reason and presents a fake ID, he or she is going to jail. Even if they provide the correct ID and an officer sees that they have another ID in his or her wallet, they are going to jail. They will charge this offense as a Class A misdemeanor, punishable up to a year in jail and up to a $4,000 fine. I know that almost every student in history has at some time had a fake ID, even one of the Bush daughters at UT, but the College Station Police Department or TAMU PD or TABC will arrest them and charge them with a serious misdemeanor for this common student conduct. They don't handle these as Class C's anymore even though there is a specific Class C offense for misrepresenting age with a fake ID. I've even had some prosecutors suggest it could be filed as a felony (that threat was made to me by a Lee County prosecutor just the other day). The carrying of fake ID's, readily available on the internet, is far more common that most parents realize. This also applies even when the student borrows an older friend’s driver’s license to get in to a bar.

3) Never drink and drive. Ever.

There are so many ways to avoid drinking and driving these days and no one, including or especially students, has any excuse for doing so. It is illegal for a minor to drive with any detectable amount of alcohol in his or her system, so even one drink can lead to being arrested and charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI). DUI is only a Class C misdemeanor, but you will still be arrested for it and the consequences can be pretty severe. Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) is a much more serious matter and will wreak havoc with kids' lives for years. After arrest and 24-48 hours in jail, the accused intoxicated driver can look forward to having an interlock "blow and go" device in his or her car (which goes over very well on first dates), high attorney's fees (if you hire a good one, like me), either a long probation (reporting to a probation officer, no drinking or nightclubs at all, fines, fees, community service), license suspensions, DPS license surcharges in the thousands of dollars for the next three years, an SR-22 insurance document that will ruin parents' insurance premiums, numerous visits to court, and, almost certainly disciplinary action by the University. And, in Texas, there is no deferred adjudication for DWI. Probation or jail, a DWI is on your record for life. Putting all of that aside, DWI is a dangerous crime that can result in serious injury or death. As a prosecutor, I put a number of young students who drank and drove and killed somebody (or maybe multiple victims) in prison. I hated doing it, but I felt strongly that if kids realized that they were not immune to being sent to prison because of their youth, or grades, or their upbringing, that at least some would find another way to get home when drinking, perhaps saving a life. I tell kids now in every case I represent that the only difference between misdemeanor DWI and felony intoxication manslaughter is that someone gets in the way and dies. Then, the conversation with me would not be about the difficulty in finding a job, the license suspensions, the court appearances, and the fines, but rather about how low a prison sentence we can negotiate. DWI is a toxic crime these days and it is so easy, with a little common sense and forethought, to avoid. I vigorously defend DWI’s, but always take the opportunity to let my young clients know the risks of drinking and driving.

4) If your friend is underage, don't give him or her a sip of your alcoholic drink.

You will go to jail. The offense is Furnishing Alcohol to a Minor and it is a Class A misdemeanor. I have numerous cases in which a young student is observed either on video or by an undercover TABC (Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission) or other law enforcement officer allowing an underage friend to sip from his or her drink. It will get the person offering the sip, underage or overage, arrested and the sipper cited for minor in consumption/possession.

5) Never have sex with a girl if she is drunk.

I cannot tell you how many of these cases I see every year. A young man gets intoxicated with a girl and they have sex. The next morning, or even a few days later, she reports having been sexually assaulted to the police. The next thing you know, a detective is at your doorstep telling you that he is investigating an allegation of sexual assault. One of the many ways for there not to be consent in a sexual encounter (thus, sexual assault) is for one of the persons involved, usually the girl, to be too intoxicated to give legal consent. In many, many of these cases, I have been able to shut down a criminal investigation without charges (because it wasn’t really sexual assault), but there is still a sexual assault offense report out there with a student's name on it. And, you can only imagine how awful the consequences are if an arrest is made. And, if you are convicted, life as you know it changes forever (just try to get a job as a registered sex offender). Even if the case is refused or dismissed and there are no criminal charges, the University will almost certainly suspend or expel the accused student. I've seen it happen a dozen times. In these times, a young man just has to be very careful. Having said that, I would also advise a young woman not to drink to excess to the extent that she is vulnerable to being sexually assaulted. This may not be politically correct, but it is the advice I will give my daughter when she goes off to college. And so my position is perfectly clear, sexual assault on campuses in this country is a serious problem, but we have cast the net so wide that less-than-criminal conduct can land a student in serious, life-altering trouble. The best way to avoid this kind of trouble is a responsible approach to drinking and sex.

6) Don't smoke pot.

It's everywhere on the A&M and Blinn campuses. Parents just don't have a clue how prevalent it is. At some point, your child will be offered pot. It will happen. I represent dozens of students every year for this offense. Possession of any amount of marihuana is a crime in Texas, usually a Class B misdemeanor, but any more than four ounces and it's a felony. With the legalization of marihuana in several states now, there is a growing feeling among kids that it is not serious. I tell my clients that we can debate all we want about whether marihuana should be legal and that it’s not as bad as alcohol, but the fact is that it is illegal in Texas and it's not going to be legalized any time soon. Until it is, you will still go to jail and face criminal prosecution. Even for a couple of grams (in fact, most of my clients charged with possession of marihuana possessed less than two grams). Possession of a grinder, papers, a pipe, or a bong, will also get you arrested (or cited) and charged with Possession of Drug Paraphernalia. And finally, baking pot into cookies or brownies or candy, and I have cases right now involving all three, turns a Class B misdemeanor into either a second or first degree felony (that's 2-20 in prison or 5-99/life). It's just the way our laws are written. Mushrooms, Kush, and K2 will also get you into a lot of trouble. And don't get me started on LSD, ecstasy, and other trendy, designer drugs made in someone's basement. And there is one last, and very important, point to make about possessing marihuana as a student. Being convicted of possession of marihuana can result in the denial of student financial aid.

7) Be careful about the company you keep.

It sounds cliché, but it really does matter with whom you hang out. I have had many cases involving the 2:00 a.m. Whataburger run with several buddies in the car when the car is pulled over for speeding, another popular pretext stop (I have had clients stopped for going 3 mph over the limit). When the police flashers go on behind the car, someone in the car gets rid of the pot or cocaine in their pocket by throwing it on the floorboard. No one, of course, claims responsibility, and everyone goes to jail. It really happens all the time. I recently had a client spend almost three months in jail on a high bond because he was driving a car and his passenger had a backpack with 28 grams of cocaine inside. The case against my client was ultimately dismissed, but not until after he spent three months in jail. This also holds true for being at a party where underage drinking is taking place or pot is being smoked.

8) Never run from a police officer or lie to a police officer about your identity or age.

I have many cases that started out as a Class C minor in possession and ended up with a trip to jail because a student panicked and ran, or tried to blend in to a crowd. It's a Class A misdemeanor to evade arrest or detention. If the evading occurs in a vehicle, it is a third-degree felony. I have seen students arrested and charged with this offense for not stopping as soon as the officer thought he or she should have. Giving an officer a fake name, or more commonly, a different year of birth, is a Class B misdemeanor and off you go to jail. If approached by a police officer, be cooperative and respectful at all times. There is such a thing as an "attitude arrest." Never physically resist a police officer attempting to arrest or search; that's resisting arrest and it is a Class A misdemeanor, and prosecutors take it very seriously. I have gotten breaks for many clients just by pointing out to prosecutors how cooperative, honest, and respectful a client was.

9) Do not use Adderall, Vyvanse, or Concerta without a prescription.

These Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) drugs contain amphetamine and other controlled substances and it is a crime to possess any of them without a prescription. At some point in every student's academic experience, he or she will be offered someone else's Adderall, Vyvanse, or Concerta and told that it will help with studying and focus. That's probably true, but without a prescription, you will go to jail.

10) If you see an unlocked bike on campus, leave it alone.

It’s a “bait bike,” an unlocked bike planted by the University Police Department with a GPS tracker installed. When it moves, the person who moves it will immediately be arrested and charged with theft. I have strong feelings about this anti-theft program as the only people it ever seems to ensnare are really good kids making a bad judgment call late at night with no intention of actually stealing the bike. A theft charge can ruin a student’s future and I think this program is misguided. But, these bikes are all over campus and taking one of them, even for a short joyride, can result in disastrous consequences for a student. Theft is not just any ordinary misdemeanor; it is a “crime of moral turpitude” and can ruin a student’s future.

There you go. Adhering to these guidelines will dramatically reduce the chances of a student being arrested and charged with a crime in Bryan/College Station. Parents, take the time to go over these with your student and you will not regret it. If you want reinforcement, give me a call at my office at (979)-775-4100 and I will be happy to set up an appointment with your student to go over these rules. As a father of a teenage girl, I know that sometimes it’s better coming from someone other than a parent.

And, I’ll do it for free.