>Should I Confess at my College Disciplinary Hearing?

Posted on March 31, 2009 by Joseph

>Last week I went to a Boston Bar Association conference on representing college and university students at disciplinary hearings. In attendance was one of the BU deans, and several lawyers experienced in this area.

The most challenging part about representing a college/university student is the tension between the school’s desire for contrition, and the criminal justice consequences of admitting to an illegal act. Typically criminal defense lawyers will advise against admitting anything, if the statement is admissible in court. Admissions at disciplinary hearings will usually fall into that category, so lawyers often reflexively advise silence. Given how much students invest in their education these days, I’m not sure playing it ultra-safe is the best approach.

So what would I do if I were representing a student who just got a DUI on campus? First, I would explain to the client the risk of admitting to a crime at the disciplinary hearing. Then I would seek assurances from the school that they will resist any attempts by prosecutors to use the disciplinary hearing transcript to prove guilt at trial. This might mean a quick call to the school’s chief counsel. Next I would have the client sign a waiver indicating he understood the risk of confessing at the school hearing. Finally, I would advise him to express remorse, and tell the school’s hearing officer the truth. Unlike in a courtroom, the student taking responsibility for his own actions will help him far more than anything a lawyer could say.

In reality (as opposed to theory), most prosecutors would not seek to admit evidence from the school’s hearing, unless it was a very serious crime such as rape, murder, or possibly aggravated assault and battery. Frankly, most district court prosecutors simply don’t have the time to chase down university transcripts, which may or may not contain useful information. This is especially true when the charge is fairly minor. The BU dean said that he has never received or even heard of such a request from a prosecutor.

At the end of the day, the student has much to gain from taking responsibility (and possibly admitting guilt) at the school hearing. It may allow him to avoid suspension, retain student housing, or minimize impact on his student record. No doubt there is a risk of the confession coming back to bite the student later in court. Yet in a misdemeanor case the chances are relatively slim. If the client understands and signs off on the risk, I think that the school’s desire for contrition makes it a worthwhile gamble.