HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved harsher penalties for hazing that, if passed by the House and signed by Gov. Wolf, would give the state one of the most comprehensive and toughest laws against the crime in the nation.
Known as the "Timothy J. Piazza Law," the legislation was put forth by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican, in response to the death of Pennsylvania State University student Tim Piazza in 2017 following a booze-fueled fraternity party at which hazing is alleged. Eight fraternity members initially were charged with felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter in his death, but a Centre County judge dismissed those charges.
The new legislation would make hazing a third-degree felony in the case of serious bodily injury or death, punishable by up to seven years in prison. It also would pave the way for fraternity houses used in hazing to be seized.
No other state has such a forfeiture provision for hazing, according to Hank Nuwer, a hazing expert and professor at Franklin College in Indiana, and few states call the crime a felony.
"In my opinion, it's trying to overcome the loopholes that have seen the harshest charges in the death of Tim Piazza dropped," Nuwer said of the legislation. "And I agree with that."
Wolf and House leadership this week signaled they also are supportive of the measure.
"Honestly, what happened up there [at Penn State] is a travesty," Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed, a Republican from Indiana County, said. "And if that legislation does come here, we absolutely will be taking a look at it. We want to make sure what happened up there does not happen anywhere else on any other campus in the commonwealth."
Wolf issued a statement praising the bill, urging the House to pass it and send it to him to sign.
"We must give law enforcement the tools that they need to hold people accountable and we must ensure schools have proper safeguards to protect students and curb these practices," the governor said.
The Attorney General's Office, which has taken over prosecution of the Piazza case, said the bill "gives law enforcement the tools we need to hold students accountable" in hazing.
Piazza, a sophomore engineering major from New Jersey, was pledging the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State. He drank copious amounts of alcohol during an alleged hazing ritual and later fell down the stairs. No one called for help for nearly 12 hours, and Piazza later died of head, lung, and spleen injuries.
Eighteen members were charged in Piazza's death, with offenses including hazing, reckless endangerment and furnishing alcohol to minors. Fourteen have been bound over for trial. More students are awaiting a preliminary hearing next month.
The case has drawn national attention and resulted in a crackdown on Greek life at Penn State. Corman announced the legislation during a break in a preliminary hearing in the Piazza case, held in Bellefonte in March.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Corman said the state's current hazing laws are "inflexible" and don't give prosecutors the ability to tailor their cases to account for a variety of crimes, some of which are minor and others of which could warrant felonies. He said he also hopes the new bill would encourage more people to seek help, noting that no one called for help immediately after Piazza fell.
"This would offer a safe harbor for someone to make that call," he said.
He also thanked Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn, for their input and support.
The legislation also has the support of Penn State.
"From the beginning, we thought this was very important," Eric Barron, president of Penn State, said.
Tom Kline, a lawyer who represents the Piazzas, said he hopes the bill serves as a model for other states. If tougher hazing penalties had been in effect when Piazza died, prosecutors would not have had to resort to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, he said.
Under current Pennsylvania law, hazing is a summary offense.
According to HazingPrevention.org's website, only about 10 states currently call hazing a felony in cases where serious injury or death occur.
Several states, like Pennsylvania, were moved to act after a tragedy. In Louisiana, where a student died last fall after police said he chugged alcohol during a fraternity initiation event, the House passed legislation this month that would increase penalties for hazing in the case of death to up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.
Nuwer questioned whether the forfeiture piece of the law would hold up in court. Corman said he is focused on deterrence.