College can't touch Zeta Psi

by Rachel Osterman | 2/19/02 6:00am

Despite Zeta Psi fraternity's de facto existence, Dartmouth has lost its authority to regulate the derecognized house, legal experts say.

Although Zeta Psi continues to throw parties where underage drinking takes place, elect officers and recruit new members, Dartmouth's breaking of all ties with the fraternity means that the privately owned house is legally just that -- a privately owned house.

The Hanover Police Department and the New Hampshire state police are the only bodies with authority over the fraternity, located on 8 Webster Avenue. Because the state police play such a distant role in Hanover affairs, the Hanover department would be the most likely authority over the fraternity.

But in the eyes of the Hanover Police, there is little reason to treat Zeta Psi any differently other Greek houses.

"I don't understand what the big thing is," Hanover Police Capt. Chris O'Connor said yesterday. "The derecognition of any fraternity really doesn't affect us because we deal with state law and town ordinances, so in fact it's not an issue for us to worry about whether it is College or whether it is private."

Two laws could jeopardize the fraternity: a Hanover ordinance proscribing more than three unrelated people from living in a non-Dartmouth building and a New Hampshire state ban on the consumption of alcohol by people who are under 21.

The Dartmouth found that only three people are currently living in the fraternity, so Zeta Psi does not appear to be violating the first law.

To enforce the second law, Hanover police would first need to have reasonable suspicion that underage drinking was taking place -- such as complaints from neighbors or documented evidence.

Zeta Psi's location might help shelter it from such complaints. Because Webster Ave. is non-residential and is populated only by other Greek houses, it is unlikely that neighbors would contact the police.

Since Zeta Psi's derecognition, Hanover police have responded to one complaint against the fraternity, O'Connor said. But that complaint did not lead to any findings of wrongdoing.

"We would need a search warrant to see if there is underage drinking -- whether they are recognized or not," O'Connor said.

If Zeta Psi were recognized by the College, Dartmouth's Safety and Security would conduct regular walk-throughs of the house during parties and the Office of Residential Life would monitor the organization's activities.

Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman said last week that he wished there were more he could do to regulate Zeta Psi.

"It's a failure. I don't have any answer how to overcome it," he said. "In this way students have a lot more control over what derecognition means than the institution."

Redman said that he plans to take some kind of action against Zeta Psi, but that he does not yet have a "game plan."

Formulating a plan will be difficult since the College has no jurisdiction over the house.

"There really isn't any more connection to the College than a any other private house in town, other than that they are students," said Sheldon Novick, a professor at Vermont Law School.

Novick did suggest, however, that there a few legal actions available -- just not to the College.

He said that the Town of Hanover could file a public nuisance case if Zeta Psi is "persistently serving liquor to minors and it can be established." Novick explained that "the town has some responsibility and authority to put a stop to that" and that only a government body can bring a nuisance suit.

O'Connor said that if underage drinking were established, the town would be able to prosecute Zeta Psi with serious charges.

"If you serve a minor alcohol, that is a misdemeanor," he said. "If you charge them as a corporation, then that act is a felony."

Zeta Psi was derecognized last May following the discovery of internal house newsletters that depicted the alleged sexual exploits of members of the fraternity. The house is owned by a corporation of alumni and continues to be part of the national Zeta Psi organization.