Sylvia Holmes

With spring break over, UT’s Legal Services for Students is entering its busy season.

The office of  Legal Services for Students offers free legal advice to UT students on any legal issue, including criminal charges. Sylvia Holmes, an attorney for UT’s Legal Services for Students, said she sees many students who have tickets for underage drinking or public intoxication after spring break. Holmes said she wants students to remember her office is available to help students who might have gotten in trouble during the break.

“Do not delay in seeking out help and advice,” Holmes said. 

Holmes said students should not pay any fines without seeking advice from an attorney. She said in many cases, students can get lower fines or charges, depending on circumstances and county that issued the ticket.

“You do not want to just pay fines without finding out what you’re doing first,” Holmes said. 

Holmes also said she might see students who are facing felony charges for crossing state borders with marijuana. Before spring break, Holmes said she was concerned students would visit Colorado, where marijuana is now legal and bring it back to Texas. Bringing marijuana across state borders violates state commerce laws, which is more serious than a marijuana offense.

Students can register for an appointment online at Holmes said if they cannot make an appointment with UT’s legal services, they should contact any criminal attorney. Most criminal attorneys do not charge for an initial consultation. 

Legal Services for Students also helps students with job contracts, non-disclosure agreements, launching new businesses and leasing.

Students who spend spring break in Colorado risk facing felony charges if they bring marijuana into Texas, said Sylvia Holmes, UT Legal Services for Students attorney.

UT Legal Services for Students, housed in the Office of the Dean of Students, offers free legal counseling to UT students. This ranges from advice on student business startups to dealing with parking tickets. Every year, Holmes said the week after spring break is one of her busiest times of the year.

But during the weeks after spring break, Holmes said the most common legal advice she gives deals with public intoxication and minor in possession charges. But this year, she is concerned she will see students facing felony charges for bringing marijuana back from Colorado, which recently passed a law legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

“I want to emphasize to our students they really cannot bring [the marijuana] back,” Holmes said. “If they decide to go up to Colorado, please be safe up there, please be responsible and please remember that you are a young adult. But you cannot bring [the marijuana] back.”

A citizen caught with marijuana in Texas would normally face a misdemeanor charge. But anyone who buys the drug legally in Colorado and illegally brings it into Texas will violate interstate commerce laws. Holmes said this is a felony, and students will face much more serious charges, including much higher fines and possibly probation or jail time.

“I’ve got a hunch that the major highways leading out of Colorado are going to be covered with highway patrols,” Holmes said. “It’s not hard to spot college kid tourists.”

Holmes said if students get in any legal trouble during spring break, they should schedule an appointment with her office online at before paying any fines or taking any action. She said it is important that students not wait or delay.


Attorney Sylvia Holmes, who works for Legal Services for Students, offers free legal advice and help to students.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

As the fall semester comes to a close, students are beginning the hunt for a place to live off campus next fall — an experience that can scare first time leasing students.

Raymond Schiflett, director of Legal Services for Students, said he encourages students to bring their leases to his office if they have any questions or concerns. The office, which has two full-time and one part-time attorney and saw more than 1,400 students last year, offers free legal advice and help to students who need it.

The Daily Texan sat down with Schiflett and Legal Services for Students attorney Sylvia Holmes to ask what students should be aware of before they sign a lease.

Daily Texan: What should students who have never leased expect as they begin to hunt for off-campus living space?
Holmes: Students should be prepared to be dazzled. A lot of our complexes do a great job of talking themselves up, putting on big displays and offering initiatives to lease right now. There is a lot of attention paid to our student renters. And that’s great, that’s exciting and that’s a lot of fun, but that’s always dangerous. For a student who is renting an apartment for the very first time, they often feel rushed, like they have to sign up immediately or they are going to lose the apartment. While a lot of West Campus apartments go pretty fast, that doesn’t mean you’re under a gun.

DT: As far as the lease itself, what are some things that should raise red flags for students?
Schiflett: Blanks that are not filled in, or not getting a copy of the lease. If you don’t get a copy of the lease, that’s horrible. If they tell you they will get it to you in a couple of weeks, that should be a deal breaker.

Holmes: And nonrefundable fees. Any apartment complex that is going to charge you a redecorating fee or a one-time administrative fee is a concern.

DT: Is there a difference between renting an apartment and renting a house that students should be aware of?
Holmes: The obligations are different. A lot of houses put more obligations on the tenant. Pest control, yard control, a lot of those things are left up to the tenant. There is just more responsibility to a home, because there is more to it. But the leases are very similar.

DT: What makes a good, law-abiding landlord?
Schiflett: Well, we don’t see any good landlords in this office. One time in 19 years someone has come in and said, “I have the best landlord that I want to refer you to for other students.” All the other cases I’ve had have been students claiming their landlords are hurting them. But the good landlords are the landlords that are good at communicating. They tell the students up-front what is expected, what they are going to do, and this is the time you need to do it in. And a good landlord is flexible with students. The majority of landlords are fine. Sometimes I walk into Pluckers and I look at the names of nearby complexes, and I don’t recognize the names. And that’s a good thing.

Printed on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 as: Attorneys offer legal advice on new leases

It is the busy season for Sylvia Holmes in the Legal Services for Students center — and that is how she likes it.

Holmes, a part-time attorney at the center, said appointments are booked for two weeks. Located on the Student Services Building’s fourth floor, the center offers free legal services, including representation, and advice for any UT student involved in almost any civil or criminal case. Last year, the office saw 1,404 students.

Holmes said one of the first things she does when she sees a student is calm him or her down. Normally, she says she sees students who are terrified with white knuckles. Holmes said since it is the beginning of the year, she advises many students regarding landlord and tenant disputes, underage drinking and traffic tickets.

“Getting a regular speeding ticket is the most frightening experience some of these students have ever gone through,” Holmes said. “These are students who have never been in trouble for any reason. To be accused of any crime is scary.”

Twenty-four percent of students the center sees are graduate students, 39 percent are seniors and nine percent are freshmen. Holmes said many students will spend their first few years at UT unaware of the free services they offer, so they tend to see more upperclassmen.

Although the center has shrunk recently from four full-time attorneys to two full-time attorneys and one part-time attorney, Holmes said they still manage to see a lot of students.

Holmes said the center sees a good portion of international students because they are unfamiliar with the U.S. legal system. Last year, nine percent of the students the center saw were international.

“Texas has done a good job as painting themselves as ‘tough on crime,’” Holmes said. “And that image scares the hell out of a lot of our students.”

After calming students down, Holmes said she educates students on what might happen with their case. She said this is her favorite part of the job.

“Not only do I explain how to handle the situation, but I tell students what do to do in the future,” Holmes said. “I always like when a student can go and argue a case from the right position as opposed to an emotional side.”

Every student who enters the office is given a handbook that provides answers to frequently asked questions. Holmes said she also prints out flowcharts that explain the legal process to students.

“Laws don’t change very often in Texas, so this is probably a good handbook to have for the next five years,” Holmes said, adding that the handbook is also available online.

Holmes said in some instances she will advise students to just pay their fines via mail, for example a parking ticket. In other instances, she will advise students to go down to the court and ask for a decreased fee.

Holmes said explaining they are students and that they visited the center will earn respect from judges.

Holmes said the center is open to reading and reviewing leasing contracts before students sign. Whenever students have disagreements with their landlords, Holmes said she tells students their first step is to send a mailed letter of compliant. If that letter is ignored, she says students can start pursuing a lawsuit.

“We see some landlords who, in my opinion, just should not be landlords,” Holmes said. “We get some landlords who are just flat out wrong and they just lie.”

UT alumnus Benjamin Wagman said while attending the University he had trouble getting his security deposit back from his landlord and called the center. Although Wagman did not follow up with his claim, he said the center’s advice was helpful.

“I had no idea what to do,” Wagman said. “If you don’t know how the legal system works, just five minutes of advice can save you tons of time and money.”

Students who need to seek legal counsel can schedule an appointment either online, over the phone or in person in room 4.104 of the Student Services Building. Even when the center is booked, Holmes said the center is open to emergencies.

Printed on Monday, October 1, 2012 as: Legal center offers advice, opens doors for students

Andrea Fernandez and Natalia Fonseca, look at a mock apartment at the Quarters in hopes of finding a three bedroom place for the upcoming fall semester. In order to facilitate the transition to off-campus living, Bevonomics hosted a workshop to familiarize students with apartment contracts and the obligations involved in the process.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

With preleasing pressures becoming more prominent in the spring semester, students transitioning from dorm life to off-campus living must consider new responsibilities before signing a lease.

Legal and financial advisers worked to familiarize students with the contracts and obligations involved when moving to off-campus housing Thursday night as part of a Bevonomics workshop sponsored by the Office of Student Financial Services. A lease is a financial obligation and students should consider the fine print of their contract before signing anything because it is difficult to get out of the agreement, said Sylvia Holmes, an attorney for the University’s Legal Services for Students.

Students need to choose their roommates carefully because they will become financially tethered to them, Holmes said. Individual leases limit financial liability and are usually offered by bigger complexes, whereas traditional leases require more trust and include all roommates on the same contract.

“Students should check move-out terms and conditions because landlords will sometimes try to nickel and dime tenants with carpet cleanups and other requirements,” Holmes said. “To me, that seems like a scam and I would advise students to walk away.”

Jarrod Byer, property manager of the Villas on Guadalupe, said living off-campus comes with new responsibilities for students who haven’t lived on their own before, including paying rent and utility bills on time.

“It’s important for students to know the associated fees included in a contract before signing a lease,” he said. “Students should do their research and not just sign a lease because they like an apartment.”

Byer said students should also be sure their roommate is someone they trust living with because cohabitation problems are very frequent between tenants.

Some apartment complexes advertise amenities such as gyms, study rooms and tanning beds to attract prospective tenants, but are not contractually obliged to provide them if they were promoted in marketing materials, Holmes said.

Apartment complex amenities are considered a “luxury” in the legal sense and are not usually included in the lease, she said.

Financial aid counselor Reanna Addison said students should consider safety and additional costs of living when moving to an off-campus apartment.

“Utilities and Internet are factored into your dorm bill at a flat rate now, but rent is a monthly expense and extra costs are not included in a rent amount,” Addison said. “The financial aid office determines student aid based on the average cost of living in Austin, and that’s about $500 a month.”

Undeclared sophomore Brianna Moehnke said she attended the Thursday night workshop because she wanted to learn more about living off-campus after her mother suggested she should leave dorm life behind.

“I’m trying to get more information and figure out what’s cheaper but still close to campus,” she said. “Looking for an apartment for the first time is overwhelming.”

Printed on Friday, February 10, 2012 as: Workshop educates students on leasing