Monday, October 17, 2011

10 College Pranks That Resulted in Criminal Charges

by Carol Brown*
Pranks are a time-honored tradition on college campuses, with practical jokes between roommates and football rivals found at colleges everywhere. Most are harmless, or at least start out that way, but not all pranks turn out for the best. What might have started out as something funny cooked up over a few rounds at the keg party can quickly turn into an incident that leaves those involved in hot water.
Here, we'll take a look at 10 such pranks, ones that may have started out with good intentions, but ended up with criminal charges. Although pranks are a fun part of college, take these stories as a cautionary tale to really think about the implications of your joke before putting it into motion.

    In May 2009, Matthew Dortch and Patrick Robinson at Central Connecticut State University put together a prank that we're sure sounded funny as they planned it, but was really pretty scary from the start. The two burned bags of popcorn in a dorm microwave, filling the dorm with smoke and causing a fire alarm to go off in the middle of the night. If they'd stopped there, this story might have been harmless, but they enlisted the help of a third prankster, former student Christopher Scifo, who tied the doors of many dorm rooms shut so that students could not get out. Although there was no real danger at any point, and no one was hurt, the three created a situation of panic and fear for the students in the dorms, rather than a funny prank meant to get some laughs. They were suspended, arrested, and charged with reckless endangerment and criminal mischief for their actions.

    Traveling for college sports can sometimes get tedious, so while students from the Morrisville College field hockey team were traveling in vans together, student Stephanie Smith pulled a prank that not everyone thought was funny. As the vans passed each other, the students played jokes, and Smith played the role of a kidnapping victim, putting medical tape over her mouth and holding a sign reading, "HELP I'VE BEEN KIDNAPPED." The team obviously knew the truth, but others on the road did not get the joke. In fact, several people noticed Smith and called 911 for help, resulting in the stopping of both vans. Smith was arrested for her actions on the charge of disorderly conduct, making this joke between friends not really funny at all.

    Kidnapping seems to be a popular prank among college students, with plenty of kidnapping jokes and hoaxes. This particular incident was a planned fake kidnapping among friends that went wrong after onlookers saw what was going on. The prank was over before it even started, as observers saw students pull on black ski masks in preparation for the prank, and called police, who intervened before they were able to "kidnap" their friend. Even though the prank failed to launch, the two are still in hot water, facing disorderly conduct charges for the incident.

    At Miami University, computer science major Benjamin Field sent out an email announcing Green Beer Day, and canceling classes. Field's email was supposed to be from Miami University President James Garland, but obviously, was a hoax. Most students realized immediately that it was fake, but it sure was funny. However, the university was not laughing, calling it a "very serious matter," resulting in disciplinary action and possibly even dismissal. He was charged with a fifth degree felony with the potential for up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. Upon search of Field's apartment, police also found marijuana and drug paraphernalia, giving him two misdemeanor drug offenses to deal with on top of the prank.

    Although most of these pranks are something that everyone can appreciate as pretty funny on some level, this incident is deadly serious. When Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, asked his roommate Dharun Ravi if he could have the room to himself, Ravi and a friend Molly Wei spied on him having sex with another man using a webcam. Not only that, Ravi and Wei streamed the cam live online, sharing it with others. Presumably, Ravi and Wei did not mean to be malicious, but rather poke fun at the unsuspecting Clementi, but Clementi did not feel the same way. He killed himself after finding out what had happened. In this serious case of roommate pranking, one ended up dead, and two others, Ravi and Wei, were charged with invasion of privacy, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. They dropped out of Rutgers.

    What's more fun than stealing a giant sheep? Actually getting away with the prank. Unfortunately, Angelo State University students Thaddeus Geagley and Randall Key, along with former student Scotty Marsh enjoyed a brief amount of fun with their sheep, but were caught and charged with criminal theft. The three stole a huge fiberglass sheep — known as the Freedom for Me and Ewe sheep — early one Sunday morning, and took it back to their apartment about a block away. We're sure they were laughing about it the whole way home, but things got a lot less funny when authorities found the sheep and arrested everyone in the apartment. They were charged with felony theft, which is punishable by 180 days to two years in jail, with a fine of up to $10,000.

    It's often not a good idea to do things you see in movies, especially if that movie is Wedding Crashers. But University of Wisconsin student Luciana Reichel made the mistake of mimicking a prank she saw in the movie, putting Visine drops in her roommate Brianna Charapata's water bottle. Of course, Reichel didn't do it just once, and in fact, she tainted her roommate's water with Visine on "numerous occasions," leading to sickness. Chaparata's doctor was not able to explain her symptoms, and Charapata did not find out what was going on until Reichel told another student about the prank, who shared it with Charapata. Reichel did not seem to be bothered by her actions, and on one occasion, even decided to add more Visine to her water bottle to see what would happen after she had heard that the eye drops had been making Charapata sick. Although Reichel was once a star swimmer on the university swim team, she was charged with a felony count of placing foreign objects in edibles and faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison.

    When you're running for public office, nothing is private, including your email. Sarah Palin found out this fact firsthand when her email was hacked as a prank by a college student. University of Tennessee student David Kernell hacked into and reset the password for Sarah Palin's Yahoo! Mail account, posting messages and photos online for all to see and chronicling the breach on 4chan. Kernell's defense attorney called his actions a college prank with no criminal intent, but Palin and prosecutors did not see it the same way, charging Kernell with felony obstruction of justice, misdemeanor unauthorized access to a computer, wire fraud, and identity theft. The charges stuck for all but wire fraud and identity theft, but federal prosecutors may retry him. He faces up to 20 years for obstruction of justice, and an additional year for misdemeanor unauthorized access to a computer.

    When Arizona made the controversial decision to allow police officers to ask for immigration paperwork from suspects, a few college students thought it might be funny to take advantage of the situation. At Arizona State University, two students posed as undercover plainclothes cops at the main building on campus, asking at least 10 people to show their identification for immigration. They were arrested when one of the students they questioned called in the authorities. Although it sounds like they intended the prank as a funny political joke, the students were charged with impersonating a peace officer, which is a very serious felony offense.

    Everyone is familiar with college rivalries, and most people can appreciate a little good natured ribbing among schools; sometimes, though, things go too far and can result in criminal charges. After the Auburn Tigers beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl, fan Harvey Updyke Jr. poisoned the iconic 130 year old Toomer's Corner trees on the Auburn campus. Updyke had called into a sports radio show to brag about his mischief, but later admitted he was sorry for his actions. Nonetheless, he was charged with criminal mischief, which has the potential for a fine and community service.
    * Editor's note: Carol contacted me asking if I'd be interested in using her post. I read it, thought it better than what I'd prepared, so decided to run it instead. All thanks to Carol for her very interesting article.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Darwinism is alive and well.

Jaden Terrell said...

Thanks for sharing these, Ben. Lots of story ideas there!