Law (un)abiding students

Several weeks ago, the Record published an article concerning the arrest of a Williams individual on drug charges (“WPD levies drug violation,” Nov. 17), who many believe to be a student. This by itself is not anything unusual here or on any other college campus. However, what the student was being charged with does warrant extra attention. In addition to the commonly issued misdemeanor of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, the student was also charged with the felony of a drug violation within 1000 feet of a day care center.

While drug misdemeanors are usually not considered serious and can often be handled with fines, probation and community service, drug felonies often mandate prison sentences and hefty fines. In addition, convicted drug felons face special restrictions imposed by the federal government and many state governments, which can include ineligibility for government funded student financial aid. Such punishments seem like things that should be reserved only for the most dangerous drug dealers. Clearly, that is not the nature of crime that has occurred.

This seems to be a situation in which the letter of the law is being taken above the spirit of the law. Punishing possession or distribution of drugs within 1000 feet of day cares and schools with a felony offense is clearly intended to prevent minors from being exposed to or sold drugs. Whether such concerns are valid or not is debatable, but regardless they are quite different from an individual possessing drugs inside a private building that happens to be within the 1000-foot radius of a day care center. Rather than examining the specific details of the situation and determining whether the student was attempting to sell drugs to children, the police appear to be piling on any charge they can find. If the student happened to live in a dorm more than 1000 feet from any day care or school, he would be charged with a much less serious crime. The punishment here appears to be based not on the crime but on where the student lives, a factor that is not entirely under his control.

The response that many people will have to an incident like this is that the student will simply get a lawyer who will help him bargain the charges down to a misdemeanor. While that is entirely possible, it doesn’t justify what has happened. What if the student cannot afford a good lawyer? If he was merely charged with a misdemeanor, he could easily plead guilty or no contest, pay his fine and accept probation or community service. He might not even need a lawyer in such a situation, saving him a great deal of time and money.

When an event like this occurs it is not immediately clear what the College can do about it. They have no control over what the student is charged with. They merely report the possibility of drug activity to law enforcement, as they are required to do by law. Furthermore, the law in question is a state law, not a city ordinance, so the school cannot easily push to have it changed. However, this does not mean that the College is powerless to do anything to prevent this from happening. The school could do a better job of informing students of the location of day care centers that are within 1000 feet of any campus dorms and make sure that students are aware of the severity of punishment for drug possession in those areas. There are only a few dorms on campus for which that is applicable, so this would not be particularly difficult to do.

Law enforcement officers also have a great deal of discretion in deciding what to charge a suspect with. In this particular situation, the officer did not even arrest the student but simply gave him a summons to court. The school could meet with the Williamstown Police Department and explain that most students from this campus are from other states or countries where this law does not necessarily exist and that many are unaware of the existence of day care centers so close to campus. This would encourage officers to exercise better judgment when deciding what to charge a student with.

Some people may argue that it is not the responsibility of the school to look out for its students like this. We are adults and should be treated as such, and part of that treatment includes facing the consequences of our actions. But the College has clearly shown in the past that it is willing to put in the extra effort to protect its students from legal trouble, whether it be downloading music or underage drinking. If we decide that these are acceptable actions for the school to take, we should be willing to at least consider whether Williams should do the same for this situation.