By many accounts, there was nothing unusual about the pair of off-campus University at Albany student parties occurring in the city’s Pine Hills neighborhood during the early morning hours of Feb. 10.
Police were called to Hamilton Street around midnight, where they found a large congregation of people at a student’s apartment, including at least seven underage drinkers. About an hour later several blocks away on Myrtle Street, officers responded to a similar drinking party attended by at least two dozen people who were under the age of 21.
The parties ended with the arrest of the UAlbany students hosting them. Michael Melita, a resident at the Hamilton Street apartment, and Giovanni Holmquist, a tenant at the Myrtle Street residence, were both charged with counts of unlawfully dealing with a minor and criminal nuisance.
The cases against Melita and Holmquist in Albany City Court have since been resolved with plea deals that involved fines and community service. Then came the reaction from UAlbany.
Holmquist was suspended for the remainder of the semester roughly a month after his arrest at the party. Melita’s punishment was a bit more harsh: He was suspended until May 31, 2014.
Neither student had a disciplinary record at the university prior to their suspension, according to their lawyers. And both stand to lose the entire spring semester of course work in addition to their tuition.
Melita and Holmquist are now challenging their suspensions and asking to be reinstated at the university in separate legal actions filed in state Supreme Court in Albany County earlier this month. The students each claim the university’s decision to suspend them was unusually heavy-handed considering the nature of their offenses and out of sync with the punishments outlined in the UAlbany’s Community Rights and Responsibilities.
“They can’t give me any good explanation for why the punishment is what it is,” said Gennarno Calabrese, an attorney representing Melita in his article 78 proceeding.
John McFadden, an attorney representing Holmquist, also doesn’t understand why his client was given a severe sanction for being part of something that occurs in the heavily student-populated neighborhood on nearly every weekend during the academic semester. He said the party at Holmquist’s apartment wasn’t any different from the many that occur regularly off campus.
“Nothing outrageous happened,” he said, “There was no fighting with police, there was no extreme rowdiness. Frankly, I don’t even know why the police came.”
Albany police spokesman Steve Smith confirmed the parties that led to the arrests in February weren’t anything out of the ordinary for Pine Hills. Still, he said, they created enough of a disturbance that police were called to both and ultimately arrests were made
“We have an obligation to our stakeholders,” he said. “It’s a quality-of-life issue.”
UAlbany spokesman Karl Luntta declined to discuss either case, citing the pending litigation. Speaking in general, however, he said students are obligated to conduct themselves in accordance with UAlbany’s code of conduct regardless of whether they’re living on or off campus.
“The university endeavors to maintain a relationship with the neighborhoods and educate the students regarding their civic responsibility,” he said. “We cannot allow behavior that puts the students’ and their neighbors’ quality of life at risk.”
Luntta said students are well aware of the standards they are held to off campus and that they have a commitment to both the university and their downtown neighbors. Though acknowledging police have “stepped up” patrols in traditionally student-populated neighborhoods, he said the university’s discipline of students involved in off-campus disturbances hasn’t changed.
“Our goal is the same — to maintain and in some cases improve the quality of life in the city,” he said.
But lawyers representing the two suspended students believe the university is overstepping its authority. McFadden, who has represented more than a dozen other students in similar situations over the past two years, believes the university is trying to improve its image following the negative publicity it received from the so-called Kegs and Eggs riot just hours before the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2011.
The booze-fueled disturbance broke out following a cluster of early-morning house parties on a block of Hudson Avenue heavily populated by off-campus UAlbany fraternities and sororities. Hundreds of unruly people — many of them students — flooded into the street during the early morning hours, with some vandalizing parked cars and others flinging appliances from porches.
When Albany police in riot gear attempted to control the chaos, some in the crowd threw rocks and bottles at them. Police ultimately cited more than 40 people, including six with felony offenses, ranging from rioting to criminal mischief.
“It’s backlash,” said McFadden. “They’re taking a real hard stance trying to convince the world they’re not a party school.”
McFadden said the result is that Holmquist, a student with a 3.5 grade point average and an aspiring law school student, is getting harshly punished. He said Holmquist’s suspension means he loses all credit for an internship he served with a state assemblyman and will likely also lose money from a presidential scholarship he was awarded — all for what he described as “a run-of-the-mill college gathering.”
“It wasn’t very rowdy,” he said. “This was not a Kegs and Eggs situation. It was a run-of-the-mill party on a run-of-the-mill night.”
Calabrese said UAlbany’s discipline of students involved in off-campus parties follows no discernible pattern. He said his client’s two housemates were given probation after being similarly arrested on a different occasion.
“The problem is there’s no rhyme or reason to their punishment,” he said.