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Students discuss legalities

Eileen Duffy | Thursday, November 16, 2006

At the request of the Student Senate, Notre Dame Law School students gathered in a DeBartolo classroom Monday night to offer some legal expertise to would-be off-campus undergraduates.

The six law students, who are all members of the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic, provided information on landlords, leases and the city’s controversial recently amended disorderly house ordinance in what Clinic director Bob Jones called “preventative lawyering.”

“We’re happy to do this because we typically see people after they get in trouble, and we’re trying to untangle them,” Jones said. “We’re trying to make you educated consumers.”

The law students first covered the basic rights and responsibilities of landlords and renters, then outlined the steps of moving in and moving out.

Law student Mary Komperda suggested involving the landlord in all steps of the process, from reading the original lease to walking around the empty apartment or house together.

Law student Matt Lilly then offered advice for “when things go wrong,” urging students to keep written records in all interactions with the landlord, should a case end up in court.

“And if, God forbid, you end up in court, don’t blow it off,” he said. “That would be the single worst thing you could do. Stand before the judge and present your case.”

The next part of the presentation centered on South Bend’s disorderly housing ordinance – a law that has been around since the early 1990s, said law student Chris Pearsall, but was amended in the summer of 2005 to include activities that “are directed more toward students than the general public.”

Conducts prohibited by the ordinance include well-known drinking violations, but Pearsall also identified lesser-known activities like gambling, disorderly conduct and criminal recklessness – which, Pearsall said, refers primarily to hazing activities.

“I know there’s been some pressure in the dorms to crack down in disorientation events, and they’re moving off-campus,” he said. “You’d not only face very serious repercussions at Notre Dame, but you could be cited by the city.”

The ordinance also includes a rule about the sale of alcohol without a license – meaning, Pearsall said, keg parties charging guests $1 per cup.

Should students violate the ordinance, the city sends a notice to abate to both the landlord and the residents, which includes a fine that can range from $250 to $2,500.

The fine stands, Pearsall said, unless the landlord begins eviction proceedings within 30 days and “diligently pursues eviction proceedings to completion.”

While students would still have the opportunity to defend themselves in court at that point, Pearsall said, he reminded students that just one violation could merit that notice to abate – which could result in eviction.

“It’s a heavy hammer that has to be appointed judiciously,” he said. “Don’t engage in prohibited activity.”

Law student Toni Mardirossian discussed the general principles for dealing with law enforcement, should officials arrive at an off-campus residence.

“The police have a tremendous amount of discretion,” she said. “They have the option to give you a warning and ask you to shut the party down. They could also issue you a ticket. Or they could slap handcuffs on you and arrest you.”

Mardirossian emphasized courteousness, suggesting students ask police to “come back in 30 minutes” to prove they will put an end to a gathering.

A policeman can enter if he sees a crime being committed, Mardirossian said, and once inside, he has the right to cite a resident for anything in plain view.

“He can’t search your underwear drawer for marijuana,” she said. “But if you have an underage person drinking or a bong sitting in the corner, you’re in trouble.”

If arrested, Mardirossian said, a student also has the right to remain silent – even if a policeman hasn’t yet read aloud the Miranda rights.

“But the best way to avoid criminal penalty,” she said, “is to avoid them coming to your door in the first place.”