Back in 1997, UNLV's Kappa Sigma fraternity was suspended when some of the brothers allegedly blindfolded and paddled eight pledges.1 If that happened today in Nevada, those same brothers could also face criminal prosecution.
Hazing may very well be considered tradition among various clubs in Nevada high schools and universities. But ever since the State Legislature passed Senate Bill 297 in 1999, any student convicted of hazing faces high fines and even jail. Schools may also impose their own harsh punishments including suspension or even expulsion.
Our Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers believe that a young person's indiscretions shouldn't jeopardize his or her future. Our goal with student clients is to try to keep their record as clean as possible so they can go on with their education as soon as possible. To read more about the Nevada offense of hazing including the law, penalties and how we can help, scroll down. . .
Many think of hazing as the over-the-top antics portrayed in such films as Animal House and Old School. But hazing can be criminal even when it's seemingly harmless such as making someone do pushups, pressuring them to flash an undergarment, or waking them up and forcing them to go out.
The legal definition of "hazing" in Las Vegas, Nevada, is "an activity in which a person intentionally or recklessly endangers the physical health of another person for the purpose of initiation into or affiliation with a student organization, academic association or athletic team at a high school, college or university in this state."
In short, it's illegal to impose any degree of physical brutality on an initiating member-or a current member-of a school club. The following three recent incidents in Nevada illustrate the broad range of hazing:
- In 2008, pledges at UNR's Alpha Tau Omega fraternity had their buttocks branded2.
- In 2010, a softball coach from South Tahoe allegedly forced players who'd struck out to drink soda out of a shoe.3
- In 2011, five wrestlers from Churchill County High School were accused of stripping a teammate, locking him outside of his hotel room and then urinating on him.4
As you can see, hazing can be inflicted by both student members of the club as well as by adult coaches or mentors. Also note that anti-hazing laws apply to any kind of student club in either high school or college including "Greek" organizations like fraternities and sororities. Other examples of hazing are:
- whipping or beating
- forced exercise
- exposure to the outdoors
- compelled intoxication by way of drugs or alcohol
- forced consumption of alcohol, drugs, food, drinks, or any other substance
- sleep deprivation
- public humiliation
Predictably, most hazing incidents never get reported out of fear or embarrassment. National organizations such as StopHazing.org exist to help educate people on hazing and how to seek help. Certain attorneys like Douglas Fierberg of HazingLaw.com have made a career of representing victims and their families in hazing cases.
Nevada hazing law is very strict in order to discourage young people from attempting it. In many cases the "victims" consented to-or even asked to-be hazed in order to be a part of the club. But consent is not a valid defense to hazing in Nevada.
The best way to defend against a charge of hazing in Las Vegas largely depends on the facts of the specific case. Common defenses include:
Lack of evidence:
The prosecution has the burden to prove a defendant guilty of hazing beyond a reasonable doubt before he/she can be convicted. Therefore your attorney may try to raise this reasonable doubt by showing how the state's evidence is insufficient and unreliable.
Cases where the prosecution has no physical evidence of hazing-such as injuries or smartphone recordings of the hazing-are obviously easier to win. Your attorney may also be able to "impeach" the credibility of any eyewitnesses, especially if they've been drinking.
Lack of hazing:
Student organizations are often steeped in traditions and rituals that involve no abuse whatsoever. Examples include everyone wearing a certain color for a day or chanting club songs. If your attorney can demonstrate that the activities you were arrested for do not rise to the level of hazing, the charge should be dropped.
It's not uncommon for people to wrongly accuse someone else of a crime out of anger, jealousy, or an honest misunderstanding. In these cases your attorney would try to argue that the accuser isn't credible or that the evidence contradicts the accuser's story.
Law enforcement may perform arrests, searches and seizures only if they have probable cause to believe criminal activity has occurred. If your attorney can show that the cops lacked probable cause or violated warrant procedures, then you can file a Nevada motion to suppress asking the judge to throw out all the evidence the cops found from their unlawful activity. If the judge agrees, your case may be dismissed for lack of proof.
The criminal punishment for committing the Las Vegas offense of hazing depends on whether anyone got seriously hurt. If the hazing did not result in substantial bodily harm in Nevada, the sentence will be only for a misdemeanor in Nevada, which carries:
- up to 6 months in jail, and/or
- up to $1,000 in fines
But if the hazing did cause substantial bodily harm in Nevada, the sentence will be for a gross misdemeanor in Nevada carrying:
- up to 364 days in jail, and/or
- up to $2,000 in fines
And if hazing causes death, the state may bring charges for involuntary manslaughter in Nevada or even second-degree murder in Nevada. These homicide charges carry felony penalties of years of custody in Nevada State Prison. The victim's family may also bring a civil wrongful death claim as in the recent case of a UNR pledge who drowned during a fraternity event5.
Remember that anyone accused of violating Las Vegas hazing law could also face disciplinary action from the educational institution. It's common practice for colleges to suspend or expel students for hazing, even when the state elects not to file criminal charges.
Defendants under eighteen who are picked up for hazing typically have their cases heard in juvenile court. Juveniles are judged "delinquent" rather than "guilty," and they may usually have their records sealed upon turning 21. But if the hazing case is serious enough, a minor may be "certified" as an adult and have their case moved to standard criminal court. Learn more about Nevada juvenile crimes.
Charged with hazing? Call us . . . .
If you've been accused of hazing under NRS 200.605, call our Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673). Our initial consultation is always free.
Depending on the case we may be able to get your hazing charge reduced to a lesser crime or even dismissed without a trial. But if necessary we'll take your case to a jury and fight for a "not guilty" verdict. We also may be able to help defend against any disciplinary action so you can stay in school.
1Stacy J. Willis , UNLV students want anti-hazing laws, Las Vegas Sun (Dec. 10, 1998).
2Rebecca Chase, ATO found guilty of hazing, Nevada Sagebrush, (Feb. 19, 2008).
35 Fallon wrestlers accused of hazing teammate in Las Vegas, Associated Press, (Jan. 14, 2011).
5Estate of Deceased College Student v. Pi Kappa Alpha House Corporation, et al.