Frat Bros Can be Charged in Hazing Death, Appeals Court Rules
An appeals court ruled that fraternity brothers who facilitated in the death of a pledge by feeding him insane amounts of alcohol can be charged in the pledge’s death. Andrew Coffey, the 20-year-old pledge, died in 2017 after downing a large bottle of bourbon, according to police. Three men faced felony hazing charges as a result of the pledge’s death, former Pi Kappa Phi fraternity chapter president Anthony Petagine, and two fraternity brothers Luke Kluttz and Anthony Oppenheimer.
The question that the appeals court had to determine was whether or not prosecutors had shown an adequate basis for filing felony hazing charges against the three men. The charges were dismissed initially by circuit court judge Martin Fitzpatrick. However, a 2-1 decision overturned Fitzpatrick’s ruling. The appeals court primarily discussed the role of former president Anthony Petagine who was not at the party where Coffey died. However, Petagine had taken part in a discussion that occurred prior to the party in which the issue of drunk 20-year-old pledges was discussed. He also permitted liquor to be served at the party.
Understanding the Court’s Decision
Florida’s felony hazing law makes hazing a felony in the third degree if it results in “serious bodily injury”. The activity that resulted in serious bodily injury could be either reckless or intentional. While alcohol consumption is one of the potential criteria for a hazing charge, the law states that the alcohol consumption must be “coerced”. However, the victim’s consent is not a defense to felony hazing charges. Therein lies the ambiguity. What is required is a substantial risk of injury or death.
On the other hand, the law seems to put the impetus for policing fraternity parties on the fraternity brothers. In this case, since the fraternity brothers knew and discussed the fact that underage pledges would be drinking at the party was enough to overturn the decision.
The one judge who dissented in the 2-1 decision to permit felony charges against the fraternity brothers said that he did not believe that there were sufficient allegations against Petagine to establish that he recklessly or intentionally created a danger. Alcohol consumption is not, in and of itself, enough to create that danger. However, if the brothers encouraged Coffey to continue drinking until he blacked out, then a case could be made that Petagine created that danger. As of yet, the prosecution has not provided any evidence or even made the allegation that Petagine or any of the other young men encouraged Coffey to drink irresponsibly or even encouraged him to drink at all.
The question then becomes: Can these young men be held responsible for college drinking culture. A circuit court judge and an appeals court judge say no. However, the case appears to be ready to go before a jury where the defense can take its concerns over the implementation of felony charges in this case.
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