Penn State’s Failure to Change Alcohol Policies Post-Piazza

Everyone knows that underage and binge drinking is not a Penn State problem but is instead a problem at college campuses across the United States.  However, following the death of Timothy Piazza, whom the Centre County District Attorney has claimed may have had a blood alcohol level as high as .36%, Penn State and excessive consumption of alcohol have been in the news. In response to the tragedy, the Piazza family called on Penn State to make many changes, one of which was a call to change to the Good Samaritan policies for underage drinking and alcohol overdoses.  Sadly, Penn State has not followed through on its on promises and no changes have been made.

Good Samaritan Law for Underage Drinking

The Pennsylvania underage drinking law, found at 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6308, contains an immunity from prosecution provision that prohibits a person from being prosecuted for underage drinking if the person calls for medical assistance for another underage drinker that is experiencing medical issues. While this Good Samaritan law protects the caller of 911, it does not protect the person that is actually suffering from the alcohol overdose from being prosecuted. Many Penn State students are reluctant to call for medical assistance because it often means that a friend will soon face both criminal charges and similar charges through the Penn State Office of Student Conduct. Obviously, a sober adult understands that a young person’s life and seeking medical treatment should always trump the criminal charges in a cost-benefit analysis, but young, drunk adults do not tend to make the best decisions.

Penn State’s Failure to Change Alcohol Policy

In response to the Piazza family’s call for change, Penn State promised to advocate that the immunity protections in the Underage Drinking law be changed to include the protection of the person that is receiving medical treatment. Whether or not Penn State has actually followed up with this request, I do not know. As a criminal defense lawyer in State College, I can opine that Penn State has done nothing to implement change and actually honor the requests of the Piazza family. First, there is no requirement that the Penn State Police must file charges in a case in which a student calls for medical assistance for another student. The police have discretion when charges are filed. The only mandate that the Penn State police file charges in such circumstances comes from within Penn State. This fall, I have had students call 911 to obtain medical assistance for a friend that suffered from an alcohol overdose, and before the ambulance and EMTs arrived, a Penn State officer was on scene to obtain identification and issue an Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness citation. I want to be clear that I am not blaming the individual police officers for doing their jobs. The police officers are told by their superiors at Penn State to file citations in such circumstances. The blame falls on the Penn State administration because the administration can tell the police officers to forgo the filing of charges in such a scenario.

Penn State Student Conduct and Alcohol Policy

I can see the Penn State administration “passing the buck,” meaning I can see the administration arguing that they are simply enforcing Pennsylvania law, and Penn State does not have the ability to change the law. I agree that Penn State does not have the ability to unilaterally change Pennsylvania law, however, Penn State does have complete authority over its own policy in how alcohol overdoses and calls for medical assistance are handled in the Student Conduct system. The Student Conduct system is separate from the criminal justice system. Penn State has complete control over its Code of Student Conduct and complete control over how violations of that Code are handled through the Office of Student Conduct. Given Penn State’s promise to advocate for the amendment of state law, one would think that Penn State would have changed its Code of Conduct to expand immunity to protect the person suffering from an alcohol overdose. Right? If you assumed Penn State would change, you were wrong.

As a Penn State alum and father of three children, I hoped that Penn State would have learned from the Piazza tragedy and would have actually followed through with their promises. Instead, they provided lip service to the family. Penn State is doing a good job of blaming Greek life and blaming the legislature for a failure to protect college students, but Penn State is doing a poor job of encouraging young adults to help one another without fear of a student facing criminal charges and discipline by the school.

Sadly, the inaction of Penn State and Student Conduct in expanding the Good Samaritan protections for Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness cases show how much they care about protecting the health and well-being of the students. Penn State places a greater emphasis on enforcing minor laws over the health and safety of a young adult. As a parent, I find this decision appalling.