egal service reflects on 20 years of cases

Andrew Donohue

Two roommates were arguing on the fate of a blown-out television set dropped from the Washington Avenue Bridge.
One said it would explode like a small bomb.
The other said it would topple and crunch like any other metal and glass object dropped onto rocks from such tragic heights.
The only way to solve such an age-old argument: first-hand experimentation.
So the two set out to prove each other wrong late one night, driving up to the pedestrian level of the campus bridge and tossing the tube to its rocky grave.
Maybe it was the dark of the night or a beam of police flashlight that prevented the roommates from discovering the results of their experiment, but they would soon find themselves in need of legal service.
The oddest twist of the story is that, with no written law against “throwing stuff off the bridge,” the two students were charged with reckless driving. Yes, reckless driving for standing on a bridge and throwing a television off of it.
Being University students, the alleged reckless drivers turned to the legal consultation of the University Student Legal Service. With the near-free legal representation, the students walked away with the charges dropped and an icebreaking conversation piece.
Not all cases that face the legal service have the curious humor of televisions and elevated walkways, but cases like this have the employees wondering if they’ve seen it all.
Begun during the 1977-78 school year, University Student Legal Service is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and taking time out to reflect on some of the more interesting cases it has faced over the past two decades.
When the legal service was founded by the students, for the students, it was established with the same principles it holds today. The service aims to help students deal with legal problems by giving advice and providing representation, and to educate students about their legal rights and responsibilities in an increasingly complex world.
The legal service, located in the West Bank Union Skyway, holds a permanent staff of five attorneys, two legal assistants, four support staff employees, and a half-time law clerk and volunteer. In addition, because of additional funding for this year and the following, the office has added a part-time paid attorney.
Many of the organization’s services are offered to eligible students free of charge, because the legal service is supported by a portion of the Student Services Fees. However, the service does charge nominal fees for some services.
“We see students who have problems, and see them through problems that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get through or afford,” said Mark Karon, associate director of the legal service.
Karon, who received his undergraduate degree from the University, was recently elected international president of the Student Legal Service section of the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association. The association links about 350 schools from across the country that offer legal services to the students.
Out of the several hundred university services in the United States and Canada, Karon said the University’s is among the largest and probably has the most extensive range of cases.
Under a new fees proposal, the legal service will be one of four University organizations receiving a substantial increase in Student Services Fees. Legal services will receive a 48-cent increase in Student Services Fees.
There are certain limitations to whom the attorneys will cover. They will not get involved in any cases against the University or that pit student against student.
“We cannot do that ethically because both students are entitled to our representation,” Karon said.
The legal service has saved students $1.5 million since July 1992 in money awarded and reduced charges, not including the money saved by students through the elimination of attorney fees.
Besides consultation and courtroom work, the legal service also offers mentor and educational programs for students.
Attorneys and clerks find a great deal of their time spent on tenant-landlord disputes, one of the driving forces behind the founding of the service.
“I find it hard to believe in this day and age that landlords have the audacity to tell tenants complaining about low heat to just open up the gas oven and turn it on,'” said Barbara Boysen, a legal assistant.
Although many landlord-tenant cases involve the recovery of security deposits, the legal service sees its fair share of extreme circumstances.
In a recent case, a student tenant was promised a renovated apartment by the move-in date by the landlord. When the tenant went to move in, the apartment was without a kitchen, cabinets or a refrigerator. The bathroom did not have a finished floor or a toilet, and the toilet was sitting in the middle of the living room.
“One might admit that a toilet in a living room is funny, but it is not comical to the tenant,” Boysen said. “Landlords are renting properties that they have no business renting.”
With hundreds of dollars invested in rent and deposits, the tenants are left with no place to go.
“It’s not like the tenant can go across the street and sign another lease,” Boysen said. “The thing is, the landlord is offended that we would even bring this up.”
Another case of landlord ignorance the legal service handled involved more hidden problems.
The student tenant was first alarmed when he heard scratching from the inner space of the apartment’s false ceiling. Upon hearing the scratching, the student grabbed a ladder and lifted the ceiling panel.
What was revealed nearly knocked the student off the ladder: 14 dead rats and a heap of live ones.
If that isn’t enough trauma for one student to go through, his landlord refused to do anything about it and insisted on collecting rent.
“The landlord thought, whether you are there alone or with rats, you still have to live there and pay rent,” Karon said.
With the representation of the legal service, the student was able to win his case against his rodent-friendly renter.
Boysen said there is a steady parade of eight to 10 landlords that regularly become the focus of legal troubles, several of which date back to the inception of the legal service.
One of the most infamous conspirators was eventually driven out of business in the campus area because of repeated legal trouble.
In one particular case, the landlord withheld a group of tenants’ deposit and sent them an additional bill, claiming the students had destroyed his lawn with potholes and tire tracks.
With attorneys from the legal service employed to represent the students, the case centered around one piece of evidence that the students had recovered: a picture of the landlord’s Mercedes-Benz parked in the middle of the torn-up lawn.
“Needless to say, the students won the case,” Boysen said. “Most of the time it is a matter of the landlord’s greed getting the better of them.”
Apart from the ever-popular landlord-tenant disputes, the legal service sees its fair share of other bizarre cases.
With a boombox on his shoulder and a gleam in his eyes, a man approached a University sorority house, claiming to be delivering a dancing telegram.
Once inside the house, the dancing telegram turned into a strip show. After the shirt and pants had settled onto the floor, the man, who Karon described as “not a student, but an exposer,” was scantily clad in just a g-string.
Like a case from America’s Dumbest Criminals, Karon said, the dancing assailant left the unflattered greek girls his phone number in case they ever wanted his services again.
With a little sleuthful police work, the sorority girls called the man back for a second gig, except this time with police waiting in the next room.
The man was arrested as an exposer and charges were pressed by the girls, who sought the attorneys of the student service for assistance with their case.
The student legal service also handles a lot of routine drunk driving cases, but even after 20 years of service some of its more unusual cases are still unparalleled.
After a night on the town, a couple of intoxicated students raided the tunnel that links Morrill and Folwell halls. With the tunnel under construction, the students boarded a motorized cart and went for an underground joyride.
The students’ late-night escapade was cut short by the arrival of police officers and the issuing of a ticket for driving while intoxicated to the student behind the wheel.
“This case teaches two lessons about DWIs in Minnesota: It does not matter what you are driving or where in the state you are driving,” Karon said.
With the costs of representation for a DWI case in the thousands of dollars, the student was able to turn to the University Student Legal Service for help with the case.
“We want to impress on students that if you drink and drive anything, you can be arrested,” said Linda Aaker, director of the legal service.
Although humor may find its way into a handful of cases the legal service has taken on over the past two decades, student demand and fees requests have shown they provide a serious service to University students.
“We don’t go looking for humor in our cases,” Boysen said. “Even our clients see the humor in their cases, but are still in a real dilemma.”
“We care deeply about our clients, and we take all of their problems seriously,” Aaker said.