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Riots Archives

Legal Issues Relating to Charges in Connection with Michigan State University Riots

Numerous students and visitors in East Lansing were charged with various offenses relating to riots on campus and throughout East Lansing.  Most of the activity emanated from burning of furniture, predominately couches, in various locations. The largest grouping of students gathered in Cedar Village, a popular gathering place for festivities following significant athletic events, NCAA basketball tournaments and, most recently, the Big 10 Championship won by Michigan State University on December 7, 2013.  The majority of those arrested close in time to the couch burnings were charged with an ordinance enacted by the City Council in East Lansing in connection with previous riots approximately five years ago.  This ordinance prohibits persons from coming within 300 feet of an unlawful fire or remaining there.  Most of the persons arrested were present after those initiating the fire or adding to it had already fled.  Those charged generally were curious about the fire and were standing in the fire's vicinity or taking pictures.  They did nothing to obstruct any fire department or police agency in any attempt(s) to contain or put out any respective fires, nor did they do anything to promote any activity, such as shouting encouragement to others. Courts have historically not upheld laws that make it criminal to merely be present during the commission of a crime, or immediately thereafter, unless there is some rational basis to punish them, for example, if they interfered with law enforcement, fire prevention, etc. from addressing the destruction of property. Unfortunately, challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance is costly, time-consuming, will likely require the case to proceed through a number of appellate stages, and ultimately, these delays will cause students and others who are charged, with stress/anxiety as they await closure.  The other hidden problem is that a pending conviction of these charges could arguably lead to banishment from any of Michigan's public colleges or universities for up to two years. Incidential issues would include loss of tuition currently paid if a defendant were required to leave the University.  Those facing conviction would be precluded from attending any other colleges in the state of Michigan that were deemed public colleges or universities, and they could only go to college if they elected to go to a private school with attendant higher costs, assuming the school would accept them in light of their alleged behaviors.  Our office was able to assist a number of young people charged with these offenses, resolving them without a criminal record.  In these cases, the City agreed to reduce the charges to civil infractions (Littering), a legal fiction, if the student/visitor-defendant(s) remained crime free for six months and paid certain costs.  Dismissal of the cases would also allow them to continue in school without fear of banishment.  Nevertheless, some of those charged may seek to challenge the ordinance as a violation of several fundamental liberty interests.  If the ordinance is challenged in higher courts, those defendants will likely prevail.

Riots/Couch Burning in East Lansing - - Here We Go Again!

Our office has successfully represented MSU students, and those visiting MSU's campus, who have participated in and/or attended the revelry surrounding what was traditionally known at MSU as "CedarFest", and most frequently in connection with the MSU Basketball team's involvement in the NCAA tournaments in Spring. Last weekend, MSU's win at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis led many new revelers, who presumably were not aware of the City and the University's previous responses to such activity, to take to the streets and shout gleefully, and unfortunately, participate in the burning of furniture and, at least in one instance, the overturning of an automobile.

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