Crime and (Minimal) Punishment

State judge says NYU can't order student found guilty of marijuana possession to perform 500 hours of community service.
September 1, 2006

It wasn't exactly a sentence to Devil's Island. But a requirement by New York University that a student found to have had illegal drugs in his room perform 500 hours of community service was deemed "draconian" by a state judge, who ordered the punishment reduced to 100 hours.

The judge's ruling has infuriated NYU officials, who are appealing and who see the decision as an example of a state court inappropriately telling a private college what to do.

At issue is the sentence NYU gave to Michael Quercia, who was finishing his sophomore year at NYU last May when the university's police officers -- acting on a complaint -- entered his dorm room and found a sifter, scale, grinder and baggies in his desk space and a bin in a common storage space (identified by a suitemate as belonging to Quercia) that contained 10 ounces of a green leafy substance later identified as marijuana, as well as $1,700 in cash. Quercia faced charges in the New York State judicial system and reached a plea agreement in which he admitted to disorderly contact. Quercia denies that the pot was his and says he has no idea how any of the material got in his room.

After his state judicial matter was resolved, Quercia faced a hearing at the university, where he was found guilty of possessing drugs, suspended for one year and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service. He sued, challenging both the finding of guilt and the punishment.

Generally state courts grant private institutions considerable leeway in how they judge their students -- and colleges only get into trouble when they don't apply their own standards in a consistent way. In this case, Judge Walter B. Tolub found that NYU's judicial system met the test of reasonableness on the issue of guilt. On the question of punishment, Tolub said that state courts in New York set a high bar for overturning a college's decision. To do so, he said, the punishment must be "shocking to one's sense of fairness." As it turns out, the judge was shocked.

Given that the student had already missed a year of classes while his court case was being settled, an additional suspension and 500 hours of service amounted to "a draconian measure that is disproportionate to the offense," he wrote. He ordered NYU to admit Quercia as soon as he had performed 100 hours of service, which he has done.

Bernard V. Kleinman, Quercia's lawyer, said that he was disappointed to see his client punished at all. But he said that there was an important principle in having the university's punishment cut. "You are still entitled to due process at private colleges and the punishment needs to fit the crime," he said.

Some observers in New York City are outraged that a college can't punish a student found to have equipment that could suggest more than personal use was involved (the original New York charges were both dealing and possession).

The New York Sun, in an editorial called "NYU Pipe Dream," said "as judicial overreach goes, this is breathtaking." The editorial noted that the judge did not dispute that NYU specifically barred drugs from dormitories and stated a range of punishments that could be imposed for violations. "A judge on the New York Supreme Court has now inserted himself into what should have been an internal matter of academic standing at a premier university. What next? Will judges start deciding that a university's English curriculum is too draconian and force the college to graduate a student who failed upper level Austen?" the newspaper asked.

John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, noted that the university's regulations could have allowed for Quercia to have been expelled, and that the judge didn't question those regulations.

"In New York State, there are limits, set by appellate rulings, on judicial review of universities' academic and disciplinary decisions, recognizing that institutions of higher learning need the discretion to make such decisions and that courts are reluctant to involve themselves in such decisions," he said. "While there are instances in which a judge can modify a university's disciplinary decision, NYU does not think this case is one of those instances. We are definitely appealing this decision."


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