Viterbo University in Wisconsin has been the scene of protests for months over alleged hate crimes committed on campus. The police however has charged a student, Victoria Unanka, with what it says was a hoax hate crime involving the setting of a fire in her dormitory. What interested me about the case was the curious combination of criminal charges. She is being charged with both arson and “the negligent handling of burning materials.”
The arson occurred during protests over alleged racial incidents on campus. A student complained about racial slurs directed against her. The university cancelled classes and campus-wide demonstrations were held. One of those who reportedly spoke at the demonstrations was Unanka.
The LaCrosse Police Department report states that Unanka “admitted to intentionally setting the fire in the second level lounge for attention purposes.” According to media reports, President Glena Temple has later announced that the responsible student would be expelled.
There were also slurs written on a dorm room door and the campus installed cameras and launched a full investigation. That investigation was closed and a Viterbo spokesperson said that “the remaining person of interest is no longer a student.”
Viterbo is not the only university dealing with such a controversy. Wayne State University Police launched a major investigation after student Zoriana Martinez alleged that, on February 16 and March 1, someone threw eggs at her residence hall door. She also alleged someone tore down her LGBT Pride sticker and stole a photo of her dog. While the police later concluded that Martinez was likely responsible for the acts herself, it did not seek charges. There was a notable twist. The police report indicated that “Isis,” a Wayne State University employee was believed to have information on the case. However, she “isn’t compelled to speak with police or WSU administration despite the fact that Isis is a WSU employee and holds some obligation to report such concerns.”
Back to Viterbo. What struck me about the story was the initial charges of arson and negligent handling of of burning materials. One is an intentional act while the other is an act based on fault rather than intent.
Here is the latter provision:
941.10 Negligent handling of burning material.
(1)Whoever handles burning material in a highly negligent manner is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.
(2)Burning material is handled in a highly negligent manner if handled with criminal negligence under s. 939.25 or under circumstances in which the person should realize that a substantial and unreasonable risk of serious damage to another’s property is created.
History: 1977 c. 173; 1987 a. 399.
The charges seem inherently in conflict. However, this may be an effort to offer a plea for the lesser charge, though it is not clear why the prosecutors would not seek an arson plea if the evidence is strong. The fire endangered everyone living in the dorm.
There is also a possibility that the prosecutors will shake out the charges by adding and dropping charges. The negligent charge can be a placeholder in that sense, a charge that is likely to pass judicial muster on review as they work out other possible charges.