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What Should You Do When You Are Accused Of Sexual Assault While Attending College In Pennsylvania?

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Answered by: Philip Masorti

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Your entire future could be in jeopardy if you are accused of a sex crime.  For students who are accused of a sex offense, not only are you facing criminal penalties for the crime if you are convicted, but you also face a multitude of consequences at the university level due to the processes set forth in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. 

When you are accused of a sex offense at a Pennsylvania college or university, it is crucial to find legal counsel that can help you with both the criminal investigation and the college’s investigation of your case. These two processes are very different, but both carry the potential of severe consequences.  The university sanctions can include suspension or expulsion.  On the criminal side, you could be charged and convicted of a felony, sentenced to prison time and required to register as a sex offender for over a decade or even the rest of your life.  A finding of guilt in either system can result in devastating effects on future employment, your livelihood and your reputation.    Defending yourself before university investigators and college panels is far too risky to do alone, especially when your entire future hangs in the balance. 

Campus sexual assault and Title IX 

When you are accused of a sex crime on campus, your school is going to be following the process outlined in Title IX. 

Rather than going straight to a criminal trial, a university investigator will be conducting their own review of the case — gathering evidence, interviewing all involved parties, and drawing their own conclusions on the claim. In criminal trials, there must be proof without a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime. However, for campus sexual assaults, colleges only have to believe there is over a 50% chance the incident occurred for them to take action against you. This burden is significantly lower, and the accused does not have the same type of protections afforded to defendants in a criminal trial.

University investigations are hardly reliable. Not only will there be a heavy bias against you, but schools are afraid of losing federal funding as a result of a bad judgment. They are typically worried about their bottom line first and foremost. For these reasons, you may feel like you’re facing an uphill battle. 

Criminal Consequences

The most common sex offenses that occur in the university context are rape and sexual assault.  Rape is a first-degree felony, and carries a maximum sentence of up to twenty years in prison, a $25,000 fine and lifetime registration as a sex offender.  Various types of conduct constitute rape, including: forcing someone to have sex, having sex with someone while they are unconscious or unaware what is occurring, or when someone is too impaired because of alcohol, drugs, or other means to be able to consent to sexual activity.  Sexual assault is a second-degree felony, and occurs when a person engages in sexual intercourse or other sexual acts with a victim without the victim’s consent.   The penalty for sexual assault is up to ten years in prison, a $25,000 fine and lifetime registration as a sex offender.

 

University Consequences

The range of conduct that constitutes a violation of Title IX is much broader than the criminal charges discussed above.  In addition to rape and sexual assault, a student can be found in violation of Title IX for sexual harassment, aggressive sexual advances, nonconsensual videotaping of sexual activity, and intentional bodily contact in a sexual manner, just to name a few.  The range of penalties for such violations include probation, suspension, a notation on your academic transcript, loss of housing, and the most serious sanction, expulsion from the university.  If expelled from the university, you lose all the money you have spent on tuition and will likely have difficulty being admitted to a different university to complete your education.  It is critical to have a criminal defense attorney involved at the earliest possible time to help you navigate both the criminal system and the Disciplinary/Title IX system at your university.  

 

What should a student do if they are accused of a sex crime? 

First and foremost, always work with a qualified attorney throughout your case. While you are not guaranteed an attorney during your school’s investigation as you would be during an official criminal investigation, many schools will allow you to have one during certain stages of the process. This can help you ensure every step is taken very thoughtfully and carefully, and that your rights are fully protected during the investigation. 

Additionally, there are two things you can do to help your efforts: 

  • Retain all evidence that could help you. This includes any surveillance footage, emails, text messages, social media posts and witness accounts. All of this information could make a difference in the outcome of your investigation.
  • Be careful what you say. Don’t talk to college officials or administration about the Title IX process, don’t talk to the police, and don’t talk to your abuser. Before you talk to anybody, you should consult an attorney to be sure you are protected. Cooperate with your school’s investigation (and tell the truth when doing so), but don’t say more than you have to, as you may inadvertently self-incriminate or say something that hurts your case. 

How an attorney can help during campus investigations?

Campus investigations occur separately from the official criminal investigation on your case, and an attorney does not necessarily have an integral part in the process itself — but you should always have one anyway. An attorney can: 

  • Help you make a statement to the Title IX investigator on campus
  • Collect evidence and witness testimony that could prove your innocence
  • Assist you in submitting documentation and written testimony that are part of your investigation
  • Guide you through the Title IX process and inform you on all stages of the campus investigation
  • Represent you through any concurring criminal investigations 

University Disciplinary Procedure

When a Title IX violation is reported, the university may impose interim actions while the investigation is pending.  Possible interim actions include change in housing or loss of housing for the accused, temporary suspension, and no contact orders between the complainant (person reporting the violation) and the accused.   An investigator will conduct an investigation and inform the accused of the results and recommendations.  If the accused contests the charges, the case will proceed to a hearing. 

The hearing occurs in front of a panel of decisionmakers.  The panel will hear from the investigator first and then the accused is permitted to address the panel.  Unlike in a criminal trial, the attorney for the accused will not get to question the investigator or other witnesses.  Instead, the accused and his attorney can submit questions to the panel which the panel may be posed to the opposing party.   After the panel has heard the evidence, they will deliberate privately and return with a decision on whether the accused is “responsible” or “not responsible” for the allegations of sexual misconduct.   To be found “responsible” of sexual misconduct in the Title IX process, the panel must find the allegations “more likely than not” to be true.

If you are found “responsible” for a Title IX violation, you have the opportunity to appeal the decision if the possible sanction is either suspension or expulsion.  Even though the role of an attorney is different in the disciplinary process than it is in the criminal process, it is still critical to have a criminal defense attorney to help guide you through the process.

You may feel the weight of the world on your shoulders as you go through this process, but you don’t have to go through it alone.  My firm has decades of experience in defending those accused of sexual misconduct in both the criminal and university disciplinary processes.  If you have been accused of sexual misconduct, call (814) 234-9500 to speak with an aggressive, experienced criminal defense attorney today. 

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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