Friday, January 3, 2020

Appeals court clears the way for felony charges in Florida State University hazing death

Posted By on Fri, Jan 3, 2020 at 12:01 AM

  • FSU photo by Martin Kozák/Wikimedia Commons
An appeals court Thursday said a former Florida State University fraternity president and two other men can face felony hazing charges in the 2017 death of a pledge who drank heavily at an off-campus party.

A divided panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned a Leon County circuit judge’s ruling that tossed out felony charges against former Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity chapter President Anthony Petagine and fraternity members Luke Kluttz and Anthony Oppenheimer.

The trio were charged in the death of Andrew Coffey, 20, a pledge from Broward County who died in November 2017 after drinking a large bottle of bourbon during a party in which pledges’ fraternity “big brothers” were revealed. The appeals court cases centered on whether prosecutors showed an adequate basis to pursue felony charges against Petagine, Kluttz and Oppenheimer.

The panel, in three 2-1 decisions, said Leon County Circuit Judge Martin Fitzpatrick improperly dismissed the felony charges. The appeals court gave a full explanation of its reasoning in the case of Petagine, while reaching the same conclusions in the Kluttz and Oppenheimer cases.

Petagine did not attend the party that resulted in Coffey’s death but had taken part in a meeting before the party in which the danger of pledges becoming intoxicated was discussed, the majority opinion said. Also, he had allowed liquor to be served at the party.

“This alone establishes that the state alleged a prima facie case of felony hazing, as underage drinkers are clearly more likely to become dangerously intoxicated in the context of a fraternity party in which that kind of behavior is encouraged and allowed, which is precisely the conduct targeted by the statute,” said the majority opinion, written by Judge Brad Thomas and joined by Judge Timothy Osterhaus. “The state presented sufficient facts that Mr. Petagine committed felony hazing by aiding and counseling actions and situations that recklessly or intentionally endangered the physical health or safety of the victim, which resulted in his death.”

But Judge Ross Bilbrey dissented, writing that he does not believe “there are sufficient allegations of Petagine recklessly or intentionally creating a danger.” Bilbrey wrote that what is known as a “statement of particulars” offered by prosecutors did not allege that Petagine forced Coffey to drink alcohol. He also differed with the majority by arguing that a misdemeanor hazing charge against Petagine should be dropped.

“Without criminal hazing or some other criminal act being committed, Florida law does not make Petagine or other fraternity officers criminally liable for college drinking culture, even when that culture has tragic results,” Bilbrey wrote.

“The trial court was correct to dismiss the felony charge and for the same reasons should have dismissed the misdemeanor charge since the definition of criminal hazing is the same for both offenses. It is the injury that results from the criminal hazing that distinguishes felony from misdemeanor hazing. Since there were no allegations that Petagine or someone on his behalf forced any of the pledges to consume liquor and since there were no allegations of pressuring or coercing the pledges by Petagine or someone on his behalf to violate state law, there were insufficient allegations of criminal hazing.”

Coffey’s death drew widespread attention and led Florida State to suspend Greek life and consider reforms to combat dangerous drinking at the university. It also spurred state lawmakers in 2019 to pass a measure known as “Andrew’s Law” to try to curb hazing.

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