The trial of four fraternity brothers charged in the hazing death of pledge has hit a snag as the courts attempt to determine the scope of Florida’s hazing law. At issue is the direct relationship between the fraternity brothers’ actions and the young man’s death.
According to the allegations, Andrew Coffey died after consuming an entire bottle of bourbon at “Big Brother Night” which is an off-campus initiation event. The original judge in the case dismissed charges against three of the four named defendants in the case and sought clarification on what, exactly, hazing is.
Under Florida Statutes Title XLVIII 1006.63, hazing is defined as any action that recklessly or intentionally endangers another student. This includes, but isn’t limited to, initiation into a fraternity or sorority. Hazing prohibits specific kinds of actions, but is, again, not limited to these actions. Prohibited actions include:
- Pressuring or coercing a student to violate state or federal law;
- Physical brutality such as whipping, beating, branding, exposing to harsh elements, or forced consumption of food, liquor, drug, etc. that can affect the health or safety of the student;
- Subjecting another student to extreme mental stress such as sleep deprivation or seclusion and;
- Subjecting another student to extraordinarily to behavior that could prove extremely embarrassing or compromise their dignity.
If the hazing results in either serious bodily harm to another person or their death, hazing can be tried as a third-degree felony. If it creates a substantial risk of injury or death, then it can be tried as a first-degree misdemeanor.
Was it Hazing or Not?
The prosecution is arguing that the victim, Andrew Coffey, drank the entire bottle of bourbon for initiation into the fraternity. The defense has so far successfully argued that the prosecution has not connected their client’s actions to Coffey’s death.
The question comes down to one of interpretation of the law. Defense attorneys, of course, are defining it quite narrowly while the prosecution is generalizing it to include more than one defendant. While there are four fraternity members left who are being charged with felony hazing, five others have entered pleas with the prosecutors. Can the prosecution charge the entire fraternity with hazing? That, essentially, is what they’re trying to do.
The Florida law specifies that certain defenses cannot be successfully used as a defense to hazing. These include:
- The victim consented to the act;
- That the hazing was not a part of an official organizational event;
- That the activity that resulted in injury or death or put another person in danger of being injured or killed was not a condition of membership into the organization.
The difficult part for the prosecution is proving coercion. In a case like this, how do we know whether or not the young man who died drank the bottle of bourbon of his own accord or he was pressured to do so by those close to him? It would certainly make it easier on the prosecution if they had some kind of smoking gun, but so far they don’t and therein lies the trouble.
Talk to a West Palm Beach Criminal Defense Attorney
If you’ve been charged with a crime in the West Palm Beach area, the Skier Law Firm P.A. can help. Give us a call or talk to us online for more information.