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Friday, November 30, 2007

Princeton Review? Charges Dropped Against Presidents of Princeton Eating Clubs

On Tuesday, charges were dropped against Savannah Sachs and Vincent Lay, the undergraduate presidents of two Princeton University eating clubs.  Both Sachs and Levy were charged with providing alcoholic beverages to a minor and maintaining a nusiance by doing so at their fraternity-like, off-campus eating clubs, which are owned and run by Princeton students and alumni independent of the university.  I'm not at all sure, however, that the charges against Lay should have been dropped.

The charges against Cottage Club president Vincent Lay stem from an incident on September 10.  The reporting of the case is a bit unclear, so I will simply reprint what one article stated:  "The charges against Lay arose from a Sept. 10 first-aid call in which a highly intoxicated 17-year-old male had to be treated at the University Medical Center at Princeton hospital after allegedly being served alcohol at the Cottage Club, police said last month."  The 17 year-old student, however, subsequently claimed that he never made it to the Cottage Club on September 10 and that he doesn't recall ever telling authorities that he went to the Cottage Club on September 10.  Prosecutor Kim Otis thus dropped the charges against Lay, noting that under case law, even if the student "made a prior oral statement, that is not admissible."

It's difficult to argue with Otis without knowing the full facts of the case, but I think that a good argument could be made that any statement about the student becoming intoxicated at the Cottage Club could have been admissible as an exicted utterance under New Jeresy Rule of Evidence 803(c)(2) or as a statement for purposes of medical treatement under New Jeresy Rule of Evidence 803(c)(4). 

Rule 803(c)(2) indicates that a statement is admissible as an exception to the rule against hearsay when it relates to a startling event or condition and is made while the declarant is under the stress of excitement caused by the event or condition and without the opportunity to deliberate or fabricate.  Rule 803(c)(4) indicates that statements made in good faith for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment which describe medical history, or past or present symptoms, pain, or sensations, or the inception or general character of the cause or general source thereof to the extent that the statements are reasonably pertinent to diagnosis or treatment.

Again, it is unclear to me from the stories exactly what happened on September 10, but there seem to be 3 options:  (1)  a 17 year-old student who was intoxicated enough to need immediate medical attention made a first-aid call in which he stated that he got drunk at the Cottage Club, (2) someone else observed a 17 year-old student who was intoxicated enough to need immediate medical attention and made a first-aid call in which he/she stated that the student got drunk at the Cottage Club, or (3) one of these calls was made and did not reference the Cottage Club, but either before or after being treated, the student told authorities and/or a medical services provider that he got drunk at the Cottage Club.

In situation 1, it seems clear that the student's statement was made while he was still in the throes of the startling condition of being grossly intoxicated.  In situation 2, it seems clear that the bystander would be startled and commenting on a startling event. See, e.g., Cook v. State, 199 S.W.3d 495, 498 (Tex.App.-Houston 2006) (finding a 911 call to be an excited utterance when the declarant observed a drunk individual throwing a beer bottle).  In situation 3, as long as the student made the statement before being treated, it would also seem that the student's statement was made while he was still in the throes of the startling condition of being grossly intoxicated. 

Furthermore, in situation 1, situation 2, or situation 3 (assuming a medical services provider was present), it seems clear that the statement would have been made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment.  The only question would be whether the portion of the statement identifying the Cottage Club as the place where the student became intoxicated was reasonably pertinent to diagnosis of treatment because, for instance, that information could establish when the student became intoxicated.

It's also possible that the statement incriminating the Cottage Club could have been admissible as a present sense impression under New Jersey Rule of Evidence 803(c)(1) if the student made the statement while he was drunk at the Cottage Club or while an observer was observing the student drunk at the Cottage Club.

One final point is that prosecutor Kim Otis' statement that even if the student "made a prior oral statement, that is not admissible" is not 100% correct.  Under New Jersey Rule of Evidence 613 when a witness is called at trial and provides testimony, his testimony can be impeached by his prior oral or written statements.  In this situation, however, the prior statement would not be admissible to prove the substance of that prior statement (that the student got drunk at the Cottage Club), but only to call into question the student's testimony at trial.

-CM

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