Back to School: Did the new college semester bring a new “problem” roommate?

Alfonso Gambone
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A Philadelphia criminal defense attorney representing accused persons throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

CollegeIt’s the start of new college semester! While many colleges and university students in Pennsylvania and New Jersey went back last week, the remainder will return to class tomorrow. College is sometimes referred to as the best four years of a young person’s life. It’s an opportunity to meet new people, find some independence, and to build the start of hopefully a great future in a chosen profession.

For some, however, the “college experience” brings more than just new friends and the opportunity to enter an upwardly mobile profession. Students, especially, those who live off campus in houses and apartments in their junior and senior years, sometimes find themselves in legal trouble. While most of these problems center on summary offenses like underage drinking, disorderly conduct (parties), there are situations where student find themselves charged with misdemeanor and even felony offenses. A conviction for any offense, even a summary offense, can substantially derail a bright future or limit opportunities for years to come.

From years of defending college students charged with summary to felony offenses, I recommend that students and their parents know as much as possible about roommates. Frequently, students are anxious to move off campus for extra freedom and even to sometimes save money. This motivation causes them to sometimes advertise a house for rent with others. While I’m not totally against this type of advertisement, I recommend living with persons who you know rather than strangers even if they go to the same school. Anything that occurs in the house opens all of its occupants to civil and criminal liability.

If you think your roommate is doing something illegal, I recommend 3 different courses of action:

  1. Move out or make him (or her) move – Your future isn’t worth a few thousand dollars in rent considering the legal expense of trying minimize or eliminate it could substantially exceed it. Further, even an arrest without a conviction can sometimes substantially hurt your future options which hurt your college education investment.
  2. If you can’t move out, keep your personal belonging away from the bad roommate’s belonging! Below, I explain the concept of constructive possession. Don’t share a closet, or chests and ever keep your personal items, in an area that contains some illegal item. You would be surprised what a person may say in court and frequently this problem roommate blames the innocent roommates.
  3. Don’t lend your lend your car and don’t borrow his or her car! Again, you’d be surprised what people say in court when faced with criminal charges. The prosecution can not only make a drug or gun case against through constructive possession, you are more likely to face a conspiracy charge even the prosecution can show you were somehow involved with the problem roommate. Read my article on criminal conspiracy to learn more about this criminal charge

Many individuals believe that to be convicted of a crime involving illegal drugs, weapons, or any other type of contraband, a person must actually possess the item; this is simply not true. While many cases involve actual possession, it is not a requirement for a conviction or a conspiracy charge. The DA can make its case with constructive possession. Constructive possession requires that the prosecution show that (1) the individual had the power to exercise control over the item and (2) the individual had the intent to do so. While the mere possession of an item in the area where an individual is arrested is not sufficient, the prosecution can use other factors which could lead to a conviction. For example, items found in an individual’s trunk can be problematic for a defense attorney if the car is registered to the individual or the prosecution can show that the individual was the exclusive user of it.

The same rule would apply to college dorm rooms, bedrooms, or living areas. Good evidence for the defense would be equal or joint access or control to the areas in question. Joint access is however a double edged sword as the prosecution can bring charges against both persons. There are many cases where roommates or occupants of a car are charged with the same crimes or conspiracy related to the same illegal item. While again, the mere presence of an illegal item isn’t enough to convict a person, your attorney must make that argument and persuade a judge or jury. Circumstantial evidence (i.e. keys to the apartment, clothing in the closet, personal items) can all assist the prosecution when access to the illegal item is in question.

If you have more questions about criminal charges in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, I encourage you to read my books or subscribe to my monthly newsletter. Have a great semester!

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