Higher Education

By Lance Rogers, Esq.

Earlier this year, SDSU student Cameron Blackburn was enjoying life. A transplant from Lake County, he was enjoying the Southern California sun and atmosphere. His grades were solid and he was looking forward to his future studies in Kinesiology. In short, life was good. All of his aspirations came to a screeching halt in February when a campus police officer cited him for possession of marijuana.

According to Cameron, he and some friends had just left campus and were parked in a nearby neighborhood when the officer knocked on his car window. The officer told him that he saw them smoking marijuana despite the fact that it was a pitch-black night and the car’s interior lights were off.

The officer said, “There are two ways we can do this; you can lie to me and go to jail or tell me the truth.” He then pulled everyone out of the car and made them sit on the curb. He asked how much weed they had and Cameron said he didn’t know. He then showed the officer where the marijuana was in the car. The officer found 30 grams of marijuana, a little over one ounce.

The officer wrote him a ticket for misdemeanor possession of marijuana and told him he would receive a notice to appear in court in the mail. Over the next several weeks Cameron dutifully watched his mailbox, but the notice never arrived, so he went back to Lake County for spring break. When he returned to San Diego, he was shocked to learn that there was a warrant out for his arrest. According to court records, he had missed his court appearance and the judge had issued a $5,000 bench warrant.

He went to court the very next day and put himself on the calendar. Then he was appointed a public defender and eventually pled guilty to an infraction. Cameron paid all of his fines and thought that he could finally put this nightmare behind him.

Then the other shoe dropped. In July, Cameron received an email from SDSU telling him that the campus police officer had reported the incident to the school and he had to meet with an academic judicial officer. This administrator told him that because he had been convicted of a drug-related offense he could be expelled or suspended from San Diego State University.

Cameron was shocked again because he thought he had done everything right by going to court, pleading guilty, paying his fines, and staying out of trouble. Now, to find out that he could lose all of the time and money he had invested in his education seemed completely unfair. He told me, “Apparently, the court punishment doesn’t matter to SDSU. The school does it their own way.”

When we spoke, he was home for the summer and still had not heard from the judicial officer as to whether he would be expelled or not. He was hopeful that he could continue his education, but had plans if the decision came down otherwise. “I’ll make the best of it either way.”

Cameron’s situation sheds light on a troubling aspect of a marijuana arrest for college students; the student discipline process.

Pursuant to Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations, state universities are authorized to enforce their own set of rules governing alleged student misconduct. However, it is important to realize that, as a state-funded entity, these universities must also provide certain constitutional rights to students. Such rights may include the right to fair notice of the proceeding, the right to review the evidence against you, the right to present evidence on your own behalf, and, in certain instances, the right to be represented by an attorney.

In Cameron’s case, for example, SDSU has charged him with alleged student misconduct for his marijuana arrest. Despite the fact that he has already been sanctioned by the state in court, the college initiated its own disciplinary action against him. According to SDSU Student Affairs, “University disciplinary action may run concurrently with civil or criminal action and/or the residence hall eviction process…One type of judicial action does not necessarily affect the other.”  In other words, SDSU does not care whether Cameron has already been punished for his actions or not. The school may sanction him either way.

However, he does have the right to defend himself. SDSU has an established disciplinary process, which allows for some of the constitutional rights mentioned above. For example, a student has the right to know the alleged student violations that he is charged with and the right to a conference before a judicial officer. Additionally, a student has the right to an attorney in cases where criminal charges are involved or where the recommended sanction is expulsion. A violation of these rights can lead to an appeal and possible complaint against the college.

As Cameron learned the hard way, a marijuana arrest can have serious academic repercussions including student disciplinary action and loss of financial aid. If you have been charged with student misconduct, it is important to be aware and protect your rights.

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