The 10 men arrested on hazing counts Wednesday by LSU police in the death of fraternity pledge Maxwell Gruver are up against a law on the books for decades in Louisiana but rarely used in courtrooms, lawyers say.

LSU law professor Ken Levy, who teaches about juvenile aggression litigation, which includes hazing, said many states have enacted hazing statutes, which vary in severity and details. But he sees little push to enforce the laws across the board.

"The thing I note in general about hazing statutes: they're rarely used. They're more there for deterrence reasons," Levy said. "It's more on the books for the real extreme cases."

Levy said the Gruver incident — which allegedly involved forced drinking during a pledge event — is definitely one of those extreme, tragic cases, and while Louisiana's statute is not flawless, he thinks it's adequate for a prosecution. However, a defense attorney for one of the men booked with hazing questioned its use in the case, citing its broad language and unclear punishments.

The statute is not a part of the state's criminal code and instead falls within the the section on education laws. However, it is a criminal misdemeanor, said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III.

"Hazing in any form, or the use of any method of initiation into fraternal organizations in any educational institution supported wholly or in part by public funds, which is likely to cause bodily danger or physical punishment to any student or other person attending any such institution is prohibited," the law, which was adopted in 1920, reads.

Anyone facing a charge of hazing faces a fine of between $10 to $100 and a minimum of 10 days to a maximum of 30 days in jail, or both. The law also says that anyone convicted "shall be expelled from the educational institution and not permitted to return during the current session or term in which the violation occurs."

The last hazing prosecution by the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's office involved the Southern University marching band and a 2008 off-campus incident in which members were struck by boards as part of an unsanctioned initiation into the band's unofficial French horn fraternity, Mellow Phi Fellow.

In that case, seven band members pleaded no contest in 2009 to criminal conspiracy to commit second-degree battery and misdemeanor hazing. 

Though there are minimum fines and jail time, as well as the seemingly mandatory expulsion clause, in the hazing statute, the students were put on probation and ordered to perform community service. Their sentences were suspended through an avenue that allows first-time offenders to receive probation, and with good behavior they can work the conviction off their record, said attorney Kris Perret, who represented one of the students in that case.

Moore said he's rarely seen the hazing law used, but plans to bring the potential charges to a grand jury to decide if they move forward with the cases. He said he's aware that some of the language, especially how incidents of hazing are defined, isn't very specific, but called it intentional.

"As wide as it is, it means to say we don't want any kind of indoctrination," Moore said.

However, he was unsure how certain portions of the statute — specifically how an expulsion is part of a criminal sentencing — would play out.

"I think it could work in different ways," Moore said. "I think it could rely on (the judge)."

But attorney Franz Borghardt, who is representing Sean Pennison, one of the ten men arrested Wednesday, said he plans to question the statute's constitutionality if the case goes to trial.

"I'm certainly going to research the constitutionally of it," Borghardt said. "It looks overbroad and vague, and that's going to be issue."

He said there should be a definition of hazing to explicitly show what constitutes such a violation. He also echoed Levy saying it was strange how the criminal law is under the education title, but wondered how that would affect due process.

"It's merging a criminal penalty and educational penalty in one statute," Borghardt said. He wondered if the criminal sentence of expulsion would "usurp that process which creates due process" from the university, as LSU also is going through a disciplinary process for the students.

Levy did note that many other statutes in other states do explicitly define hazing, as well as give more clear sentencing guidelines. 

Pennison, Matthew Alexander Naquin, Zachary Castillo, Elliott Eaton, Patrick Forde, Sean Paul Gott, Zachary Hall, Ryan Isto, Hudson Kirkpatrick and Nicholas Taulli were booked into Parish Prison Wednesday afternoon, each on a count of hazing. Naquin was also booked on negligent homicide.

Gruver died on Sept. 14 after a night of drinking at the Phi Delta Theta house. Fraternity members hazed pledges and made them participate in a drinking game where they had to drink if they answered quiz questions wrong, according to LSU police reports. 

Negligent homicide, a much more commonly used criminal statute, carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a maximum fine of $5,000, or both. 

All 10 of the men are current or former LSU students. 

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.

Tags