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Monday, December 11, 2023
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SWJ: UB's Civil Court System

Last semester, Rich and his roommate were caught by University Police for possession of marijuana in his Red Jacket dorm.

Like most students found on campus with marijuana , Rich, a senior political science major who asked that his last name be withheld, was referred by the police to the Student-Wide Judiciary committee. The SWJ is UB's civil court system, serving as the campus' central judicial arm for all undergraduate students at the university.

Created in 1973 to provide a fair forum of justice for students, the SWJ is run entirely by students, handling cases referred by the University Police and resolving civil disputes between their constituents. SWJ also acts as the judicial branch for the Student Association, handling conflicts in officer elections and problems within student clubs.

SWJ, which is recognized as a New York State court, "gives an opportunity for students who make mistakes to go and correct them through reasonable sentencing," said Trevor Toricelli, SWJ chief justice.

According to Toricelli, UB's justice system is unique among college campuses, because students control the trials and sentences of their peers.

"In a lot of cases, kids in other schools go to a real court and get much harsher sentences," said Toricelli. "Not a lot of universities have this kind of program. It's something that a lot of other universities take a look at to model a system after. Our recidivism rate, the people who come back, is about two percent. Once we see them, we probably won't see them again. "

Although drugs and alcohol account for a substantial portion of cases, Toricelli says the judiciary sees a wide variety of offenses.

"We have a range of everything you could possibly imagine. We've had stuff that are serious assaults, not just simple fights, to sexual assaults." Fortunately, Toricelli said, none of the latter cases were brought before SWJ last year.

Although police refer many cases to SWJ, it is a civil rather than a criminal court. If a student is arrested, he or she is prosecuted in Amherst or Buffalo city court, and again in SWJ, where the university acts as the offended party.

University Police Director John Grela detailed how cases are brought to SWJ.

"The officers complete what we call an SWJ referral form, indicating what the violation is. Then they serve the individual that we arrested with a notice to appear within seven days to the SWJ office."

"There may be a case where no arrest is made, but there is a violation of student rules and regulations," adds Grela. "That individual is referred to the SWJ and is given a copy of a referral notice of what to do, and what the campus charges are."

Such was the case with Rich.

"We didn't get arrested. This was a first type offense," he explains. "If you're honest with the cops, they're pretty cool. A letter goes to your dorm and you see your hall director."

Students can also file individual grievances to the SWJ as long as they fill a police report for the incident.

"We'd get a lot of, 'my roommate did this.' When you have to go to the police and get a report, it tends to weed those [kinds of reports] out every now and then."

After a case is filed with SWJ, students consult with UB Law School students, who explain the case against them and recommend community service options. In Rich's case, since his offense occurred in the dormitories, he was referred to his residence hall director and then sent to SWJ.

"We go to our hall director, he talked to us, and recommended the campus-wide judiciary. We got 30 community service hours. That was last year during finals. I could do it this fall, so I didn't have to do it in exams," Rich said.

SWJ typically approves the community service options offered by law students. Fighting a case in a trial is much less common, Toricelli explained, since most students acknowledge their guilt.

Still, some students do seek a court date, and in these cases are referred to Group Legal Services, an organization that offers free legal defense on campus.

"Half of what we do, we offer legal advice on on-campus and off-campus matters, through actual attorneys," said GLS Director John Menard. "Then we have a group of law students who act as defenders [in SWJ]."

The trials are meant to mirror actual courtrooms, but according to Toricelli, there are fewer "lawyer tricks." Full disclosure is stressed on both sides. One SWJ justice presides as a procedural judge, and five others act as the jury. A verdict arrives 48 hours after the trial, based on the majority opinion of the jury.

Currently, the SWJ is attempting to complete last year's caseload, and is taking applications for new justices this semester. After filing an application and undergoing a brief interview, the chief justice selects lower justices from a pool of candidates.

"If I think you're a good candidate, then I send you along to the SA president. The president nominates you and the senate confirms you," said Toricelli.

Toricelli noted he has never heard of a situation in which SA did not approve a candidate. And contrary to popular belief, Toricelli said, you don't have to be a political science major to join the court.

Both Toricelli and Menard believe UB's system gives students fair treatment.

"To me, it's better than your old style, high-school principal system. At least there's some opportunity for somebody who didn't do something to plead their way, or make their way through the system and actually exonerate themselves," Menard said.

Toricelli, as an undergraduate, offers a student-based perspective.

"I think the people who come in here on trial are no different. I tell the justices that they are no different from us. Every college student makes a stupid mistake at some point."



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