Monterey Bay Justice Project

CSUMB students in legal trouble need resources

By Samuel Johnson, Noah Friedman and Joel Soria

When Brian, a third year Computer Science major, was summoned to court after being pulled over and arrested for carrying tablets of ecstasy, he had no idea what to expect.

“I didn’t know how it was going to happen,” said Brian. “Hell, I didn’t even know if I was going to get arrested that day ‘cause I didn’t know how serious my charges were at that time.”

Brian had received notice that the Monterey County District Attorney was charging him with possession of a controlled substance, and so he showed up in court by himself, hoping to obtain a public defender.

“I was kind of nervous, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I didn’t know if they were going to be helpful to me because I’ve heard horror stories about public defenders not doing a great job at protecting you and serving you...and this was kind of concerning to me, because I wanted to be represented correctly, I wanted to have the means of correcting my mistake.”

Brian’s biggest fear was how the criminal charges would impact his education and career.

“I was really concerned about what was going to happen to me and how my future would be affected,” said Brian. “I was stressed about how it would affect my career, my college. Especially being a student on financial aid. I definitely didn’t want to have that affected and get my financial aid taken away from me.”

At many universities, including California State University’s (CSU) Fullerton, San Bernardino, and Sacramento campuses, Brian could have spoken with an attorney before his first court appearance. Unlike CSU, Monterey Bay (CSUMB), these schools offer free legal services, including consultations and referrals, to their students.

Students often have little to no familiarity with the criminal justice system, and seldom have access to the financial resources necessary in hiring an attorney. These services help to fill the gaps.

This is especially true for a university that caters to underprivileged communities. At CSUMB, 56 percent of students are first-generation, 44 percent are from underrepresented minority groups and 34 percent are low-income.

These communities are less likely to have relationships in close proximity to the legal system, creating a disparity in easily accessible information. Such information is not only vital for a successful court proceeding but can also greatly reduce the possibilities of being arrested and incarcerated for suspected offenses in the first place.

This was the case for fourth year Business major Eddie, who was arrested for driving under the influence on East Campus.

“When I actually knew I was being arrested, I felt on edge,” said Eddie. “When I first got in handcuffs I was kind of in disbelief. I didn’t think it was real. I was kind of scared and didn’t know what was going to happen.”

As his court date approached, Eddie was unsure of what to do. In addition to being a full time student and part time worker, Eddie also had to deal with criminal charges that he did not understand. Thankfully, a family friend intervened and represented him free of charge.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he further explained. “If I didn’t know that attorney, I would not have known what to do. I probably wouldn’t have sought out an attorney; I probably would have just gotten a public defender because I wouldn’t have been able to afford [a lawyer].”

Like Brian, Eddie was unsure of how the criminal charges could affect his future.

“I was confused and concerned,” he said. “Because you’d want to know that it won’t affect your future, that when you’re getting hired someone won’t look back at it.”

He believes that, if CSUMB had a legal aid program at the time of his arrest, he would definitely have utilized it.

“A lot of college students do get in legal trouble,” Eddie added. “I think it would definitely be beneficial. If I didn’t have a family friend lawyer, I would have just gone online or asked friends. So to have somewhere where you can go and talk to people and get like a rough idea of how to handle the situation would be a great resource to have on campus.”

At CSU Fullerton, students can visit the College Legal Clinic for help with legal matters. The College Legal Clinic is a nonprofit organization that is staffed by CSU Fullerton students and led by a governing body of legal professionals.

The program provides students with legal consultations and referrals on not only criminal problems, but also family law, personal injury, landlord/tenant, immigration and other matters.

At many universities, free legal consultation and referral programs are organized and funded by the respective Associated Students organization. CSUMB Associated Students President Lauren McClain believes students would benefit from implementing a legal aid program on our campus.

“This is something I have heard about from other campuses, and that I wish we had,” said McClain. “I would love to see AS hosting such a program. The question remains as to how such a program would be funded.”

In a survey of CSUMB students 99 out of 100 said they were interested in have a Legal Aid program on campus and 98 out of 100 said they would be willing to pay a $1 to $5 fee to support the program.

“We are currently very tight on cash, as the whole school is, since we have been adding programs and growing every year without reciprocated growth in our revenues through student fees,” said McClain.

One option would be to reach out to community partners and donors to support the program. Associated Students could then host the clinic, while avoiding the cost.

“If the support needed is either non-financial or minimally financial, I do think this is something we could do,” said McClain.

When asked to comment on this story, a representative of the President’s Office indicated that the best avenue for creating a legal aid program “for a campus our size” would be collaborating with the Monterey College of Law.

Curtis Johnson, an attorney with decades of experience representing dozens of university students, has seen this problem many times.

Some of the most common crimes he has seen CSUMB students involved with are non-violent offenses, such as driving under the influence of alcohol, using fake identification cards and drug related matters.

Johnson has found that college students “have no idea” how the criminal justice system works. Many students do not understand what could happen to them and worry about how the charges could impact their standing at the University.

“They are concerned about the impact on their school, and their ability to continue going to school,” said Johnson. “They are concerned about incarceration, and how it will all impact their family. In at least two instances I can think of, they were either suspended or expelled from the University. There was a lot of family devastation and a lot of disappointment.”

He recounted one instance in which a CSUMB student became involved with the unlawful acts of a friend. While the student did not directly commit a crime, they did speak to law enforcement and lie about their involvement. Although they were not formally charged with a crime, the University did suspend her for her actions.

“Knowing your right to remain silent, talking to an attorney, documenting things, setting up some kind of protocol in case they are arrested - these are really important preliminary matters that people learn from being able to speak to an attorney, and a lot of people don’t feel like they can because they don’t have the financial resources or don’t want to go to their parents,” said Johnson.

Some students, confused and scared by the criminal justice process, turn to CSUMB faculty for assistance. Debra Busman, an associate professor in the School of Humanities and Communication at CSUMB, has helped a number of such students.

In one instance, a student was accused of instigating a fight with her residence hall roommate. When the student was charged with a crime, but did not know what to do and had nowhere else to turn, she asked Busman to help her.

Busman was able to assist the student in communicating with the Public Defender’s Office and raising money to hire a private attorney. As a university professor, she believes attorneys were more willing to give her respect and listen to her, as opposed to a young student.

[Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of students interviewed for this report.]