Charging organizations with crimes not unusual

People are charged with crimes every day. They get handcuffed and fingerprinted and locked in holding cells.

But how does any of that happen to an organization?

A Centre County investigating grand jury recommended a long list of charges against the Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity, formerly of Penn State, following the February death of pledge Timothy Piazza, 19, of Lebanon, N.J.

“It is not uncommon to file criminal charges against a corporation,” said Clearfield County District Attorney William Shaw. “In general, corporations bear criminal responsibility under various scenarios and one is when the acts are committed by members of the board or high managerial agents acting on behalf of the corporation or the corporation tolerates the activity.”

In the Beta Theta Pi case, individuals charged include the president, Brendan Young, and vice president, Daniel Casey. House manager Braxton Becker, who was already charged with drug offenses after search warrants were served on the fraternity house, was arraigned Tuesday.

The top charge in the fraternity’s case is involuntary manslaughter, along with 50 counts of hazing and 95 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors.

According to Judy Ritter, professor of law at Widener University’s Delaware Law School, the question when charging an organization is similar to charging an individual, but the way proof is managed is different.

“What action did the organization take or not take? Did it do it negligently or recklessly?” she said.

But what is the punishment? You can’t send a fraternity to jail.

“It is important to hold all people and organizations responsible for crimes, particularly deaths,” said Shaw. “The reasons it can be important are to impose fines, which hurt corporations, and to make sure the history of the event is attached to the corporation so it does not move forward unscathed.”

Fines are not unfamiliar to fraternities. Beta Theta Pi was last fined $500 in 2009 for a liquor violation, along with one day of community service per member, according to court documents.

If each liquor charge in the new case netted a $500 fine, that would total $47,500 even before addressing the hazing or manslaughter.

“Most important, it makes the corporation responsible and can make them enact change. Years from now if something similar happens, this will be attached to the corporation name,” Shaw said.

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