College students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) campus can get legal advice on campus and even hire a lawyer – for free.
The university gives free legal help and represents students through a department called Student Legal Services. It’s a program that’s paid for completely with student fees.
Shan Wu, a former federal prosecutor who’s based in Washington, D.C., and specializes in defending college students, said calling a lawyer should be the first thing you do if you think you could be in trouble.
It’s a “no-brainer,” Wu said, particularly if the consequences of your offense – like suspension or expulsion – could affect your education.
Of the 1,250 cases that Student Legal Services handles at the university each year, 25-30 percent of them are criminal charges. Of those cases, the majority are alcohol-related offenses.
Jeffrey White, an attorney for Student Legal Services, said it’s crucial to get a lawyer “as quickly as possible” if you get in trouble for alcohol.
The reason, he said, is because “you need someone on your side helping you to get the courts closer to understanding reality.”
Although each casy varies, often first-time alcohol offenses are handled through a diversion program, which gives students a chance to enter a program that will erase the conviction from their criminal record if they meet all the requirements. It’s common practice across the country.
The worst thing a student can do, Wu said, is try to work things out for themselves without seeking help from an attorney.
Wu said a lot of times, parents are just as guilty as students when they adopt a “We don’t know, but it should be OK mindset.”
“Then, they end up calling me after being suspended. I’d rather be included early,” he said.
For students who spend too much time thinking about whether they’ll get into trouble or not, they should remember that most schools have what’s called a Good Samaritan Act.
In Nebraska, the Good Samaritan Law offers limited legal immunity for persons under the legal drinking age who call 911 because they think someone might have alcohol poisoning.
White notes that the best way to stay out of trouble for drinking is to not drink, but students should know their rights before trouble happens.
All citizens have the right to remain silent, and it’s a right that White said is best practice for students if they have been stopped by the police.
Also, students do not have to give officers permission to search their vehicles.
Just because you in trouble, White said, does not mean that you lose your rights.
He said police searching your property is a “complete loss of privacy.” It might be a good idea to voice record any and all encounters with police, White said.