DennisBeaverNovember 22, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

When our son Chad drives home from college over school breaks, within minutes of his arrival my wife and I go to work sorting and then washing what seems like an entire trunk load of soiled clothing. It is part of a family ritual that we all look forward to when our children return home for the holidays.

But this December things were different, and that is why I am writing. As my wife and I sorted the clothing, something was very much out of place. He had a lot of new, expensive, designer shirts, sweaters and slacks, things he could never afford to buy as they are well beyond his budget.

Chad said that a friend in his fraternity works at a department store and gets a huge discount. Even assuming a 50 percent discount our son could only afford to buy one or two shirts, not 15 shirts and 10 pairs of slacks. When he told us that just about everyone in the frat house buys clothes from the same “bro,” something did not seem right.

The day after our son came home, a detective with the University’s Police Department phoned and wanted to interview him. He assured me that if Chad cooperated, no criminal charges would be filed. What should we do? Thanks.
— Kings County readers.

Lifelong consequences

When that e-mail came in, I immediately phoned my readers. While new and disturbing to them, this is a fairly common situation, and extremely serious. The mechanics are simple: a college student gets a part-time job at a department store and then rings up sales at greatly reduced prices, or just puts items in a bag and hands them to friends.

“It is all very exciting, and to college students who want to look sharp but haven’t got the money, it’s like your birthday and the holidays rolled into one,” is the way one of my clients — then in college and a fraternity — described the feeling. “Suddenly, I felt cool. It was an amazing rush, but so stupid, as you fail to realize that this is stealing, and that you have become a thief,” he admitted.

Cooperation with the police and restitution to a Southern California department store kept him out of jail, and today, years later, he is a successful — and honest — building contractor. “It was the scare of my life, and had a lasting, positive effect,” he told me when we talked recently. “Suddenly words such as morality and ethics took on a personal meaning. I wish I had not done it, but the experience changed me,” he said.

The consequences of what Chad has apparently done can be well beyond what he ever would have thought possible. “It could easily lead to the loss of a college scholarship, criminal prosecution, a felony record, loss of the right to vote, ineligibility to work for the government or law enforcement, to list only a few. Most college students who get involved in these activities do not realize that what they are doing is so serious, and that’s part of the frustration in dealing with kids who are legally adults, yet lacking in real-world maturity,” Hanford Criminal Defense Attorney Bill Parry told me when I ran these facts by him.

“If you fast forward three or four years, given the same opportunity, they would never even consider taking the clothing. But when you are 20 and in a fraternity, there is a group- think mentality that can interfere with clear reasoning and understanding consequences,” Mr. Parry added.

A little boy once again

I asked my readers to put their son on an extension phone. If ever you wanted
evidence that the human brain can still be immature at age 20, this was it.

“Chad,” I began, “I need you to level with me. “Did you honestly think that your bro could outfit his friends for cents on the dollar? Or did the notion that maybe he was stealing from the department store cross your mind — or was it possibly discussed on Friday night over a keg of beer?”

“Well, uh, I guess, but it was cool having such great stuff to wear,” he replied, with a tone of voice that made me wonder if he thought this was a joke. “Have you heard of Penal Code Sections 496 or 459?” I asked.

He had not.

“It is Receiving Stolen Property and Burglary — entering a commercial building with the intent of stealing, and, depending upon the value involved, and who is doing what you could be looking at felony prosecution and possible time in custody. The campus police obviously have reason to believe that you are involved in something. How much they know is unclear. So now, you have some very tough ethical and moral questions to deal with,” I said.

Long silence

Chad said nothing at first. But then, instead of a know-it-all 20-year-old, college student, frat brother, I could almost see the tears running down the face of a frightened little boy. “Are you saying that I could go to jail, and that I might have to tell the police who gave me the clothing? Are you saying that? I can’t, I won’t do that!” he yelled, crying.

“Right now, all we know is that the police have reason to suspect your involvement and they want to talk with you. In my opinion, if you ignore the detective’s request, you are playing with fire. Personally, while lawyers may differ, I would never recommend ignoring the officer’s request.

Advice from a criminal attorney

“Chad needs a lawyer, and he needs to cooperate — under the strict advice of his attorney. I am encouraged by the detective saying that he does not want to arrest or charge Chad — and this might lead to a formal agreement to not prosecute. At this stage not enough is known, but the worst thing he could do would be to ignore the request for an interview. The family needs to retain an attorney who practices law in that town, someone who has worked with the police and who knows who can be trusted,” Hanford Attorney Parry concluded, and that is the exact same advise that I gave to my readers.

When I discussed the facts of this case with one of the most articulate Probation Officers I have ever spoken with — Humboldt County Chief Probation Officer Doug Rasines — he eloquently summed up the crossroads this young man stood before:

Involvement in criminal activity — especially at this age — can by itself cast a dark cloud over the way others see your basic character and morality. These issues have a lasting impact on future employment opportunities, especially with positions of trust. Chad probably never asked himself the question, “What does this say about my honesty and trustworthiness?”

We know the answer today. But, in addition to parents who have a strong sense of right and wrong, Chad has something else on his side: his youth and the chance to make things right. I believe he will.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.