In Louisiana, the maximum criminal penalty for hazing is softer than the penalty for shoplifting candy. A hazing conviction comes with a smaller fine than one for littering and means less jail time than someone faces for stealing their neighbor's chicken.
Today, the maximum fine that can be imposed for someone convicted of hazing is a $100, and the maximum jail time is 30 days.
That doesn't sit right with Lafayette State Rep. Nancy Landry. The Republican lawmaker said she's filing a bill that will create a steeper framework of consequences for people and organizations at the high school and college level who engage in the dangerous tradition. The regular legislative session begins March 12.
Landry said she was moved to author the proposed change after learning about the death of Maxwell Gruver, an LSU freshman who died last fall in what police described as a hazing incident where he drank himself to death during an initiation at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. Ten men were arrested on counts of hazing, and one was arrested on an additional felony count of negligent homicide.
Landry said it was unthinkable that if convicted, some of the men involved could walk with a fine of $100.
"We have continued to have a problem with this and we need need to send a message to people that this is a serious offense and we're not going to tolerate it anymore," said Landry, who has a college-aged son. "I don't think anyone sets out intending to cause serious bodily injury or death, but it happens. And they need to know that it's a crime to do it."
The state's hazing statute classifies the crime as a misdemeanor. The harshest part of the current law might be that students found guilty of hazing must be expelled from school — a provision that some defense attorneys involved in the Gruver case have called unconstitutional.
The last time Rae Ann Gruver saw her son Max, he enveloped her in a hug that she'll treasure forever.
Landry's bill would increase the penalty for nonviolent hazing to a jail sentence of up to six months or a fine of $1,000, according to a draft of the bill she provided to The Advocate. Her bill has not yet been filed.
In the event of bodily harm or death of the victim, the crime would be a felony with a maximum fine of $10,000 and a cap of 5 years in jail. The bill, she said, shouldn't prevent law enforcement from pursuing more serious charges when appropriate, such as homicide or battery.
The bill also opens the door for the student organizations to be penalized. For example, if it's determined that representatives of a fraternity had knowledge of a hazing incident or could have prevented it, the organization can be fined up to $100,000. It would also have to forfeit any public funds it has received and would be banned from operating at the school.
Gruver, an 18-year-old student from Roswell, Georgia, was only a month into his first year at LSU when he attended an initiation event at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. That night, police said, Gruver was forced to chug 190-proof liquor whenever he answered trivia questions about the fraternity incorrectly. He died of alcohol poisoning and choking on his own vomit, a medical examiner said. His blood alcohol level was 0.495.
"We've lost too many lives and it's time to let people know this is a crime," Landry said.
Stiffer criminal sentences for hazing are among the changes that Max Gruver's parents, Rae Ann and Stephen Gruver, have called for in recent months following the loss of their son.
Landry said she expects the bill will have widespread support. But one possible hiccup could be an ongoing prison reform effort in the Legislature which seeks to streamline criminal sentencing to ensure penalties are consistent and equitable.
Lawmakers and criminal justice stakeholders are meeting throughout the year to make recommendations that will overhaul the sentencing for hundreds of felonies on the books.
Random drug tests for fraternity members, adult supervision during new member activities, eliminating hard alcohol and kegs at frat houses, an…
Gretna State Rep. Joe Marino, no-party, has been a leader in the criminal reinvestment overhaul. He said he would reserve his judgment on Landry's bill until he could read it. But he expressed some caution.
"What we're not wanting to have is a system of crime and punishment that are based on laws just added in response to a tragic events," Marino said. "It's that knee-jerk legislation that we're trying to rein in."