·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary


College Students and the Law: The Most Common Legal Issues Students Face

— December 19, 2019

If you are headed off to campus soon, or your child is getting ready for college, have a conversation about these serious crimes and legal issues they need to be aware of and avoid. 

When most college students head off to campus, they do so with the expectation that their time will be filled with classes and studying and yes, plenty of fun and socializing. Most don’t expect that their actions will land them in a courtroom, or even worse, in a jail cell. 

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for college students to find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Although many of the offenses that get them in legal hot water are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, the fact that they are now officially adults means that a guilty verdict is likely to haunt them for a long time, if not the rest of their lives. A good criminal defense lawyer can help prevent serious consequences, but staying out of trouble begins with knowing what can get you there in the first place and avoiding it. 

If you are headed off to campus soon, or your child is getting ready for college, have a conversation about these serious crimes and legal issues they need to be aware of and avoid. 

Drugs and Alcohol

Among the most common legal issues faced by college students are those related to drugs and alcohol, including the use, possession and distribution of substances. Although you might be hard-pressed to find evidence of it on any college campus, it is illegal for anyone under age 21 to drink alcohol, and getting caught drinking, possessing or just holding an open container on campus can lead to major consequences. 

Many colleges will address underage drinking issues internally, and the consequences may be limited to campus punishments, but if you are off campus, it’s likely that underage drinking can lead to an arrest and other charges. It’s also illegal to supply alcohol to anyone under 21 (yes, that includes the sorority sister who will turn 21 next week). College students must understand the applicable laws and the consequences of breaking them both on and off campus to avoid legal trouble. 


Almost every state in the U.S. has laws against hazing, which is defined as forcing people to do humiliating and often dangerous things as part of an initiation ritual or membership process. Once commonplace in the Greek system on college campuses, schools and law enforcement are less accepting of this practice and getting caught hazing can lead to fines and jail time. 

Rental Contracts 

Rental contracts rarely lead to criminal prosecution, but they can still land college students in court if they break the terms of a lease. For instance, even when you live with roommates, a landlord can begin the eviction process if the rent isn’t paid or a clause is violated (for instance, having people living in the property who aren’t on the lease, or disturbing the peace), regardless of who the responsible party is. College students need to learn to carefully read leases (or get help from someone who understands all of the clauses) and get all agreements with roommates in writing to prevent misunderstandings that can lead to legal issues down the road. 

It’s also important that college students know their rights as tenants. For example, a tenant can break a lease if the landlord violates its terms; for example, he doesn’t make necessary repairs to a hot water heater, leaving the property without hot water for weeks on end. The lease will outline the renter’s rights and responsibilities, and knowing them will prevent legal trouble. 


Young people protesting; image by Callum Shaw, via
Young people protesting; image by Callum Shaw, via

An increasingly common legal issue for college students is charges related to protesting. Although the right to a peaceful protest is guaranteed by the Constitution, there is a great deal of leeway when it comes to interpreting “peaceful,” and you can be arrested if the protest takes place on private property or is disruptive in any manner. Not to mention, under some state laws, only five people are required for a protest or other gathering to be labeled a riot if they are engaged in disorderly conduct.

So, while it’s perfectly legal for college students to express their opinions and protest what they see as injustice, they need to do so in such a way that they cannot be charged with rioting or disorderly conduct. Anyone planning or planning to attend a protest should learn the applicable laws and be sure to follow them, or risk fines or even jail time for their activities. 

Dealing with Legal Issues

Before leaving for college, students should know what to do if they do find themselves being arrested or facing charges. First and foremost, anyone being arrested can — and should — exercise their right to remain silent. Do not speak to anyone other than a lawyer; the only thing you should say to the police is to request to call a lawyer, or someone who can get you a lawyer. Do not answer any questions or provide a statement until your representation is present. 

Also, learn the rules regarding search and seizure. If a police officer asks for permission to search you or your belongings, you can say no — and should. If they have reason to suspect they will find something (drugs, weapons, etc.) they will not ask permission to search. Again, wait until you have a lawyer present before providing any information. 

Many — in fact, most — college students finish school without any serious legal problems. But understanding the potential for them, and how to respond, reduces the chance of trouble even further. 

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