Dorm Searches Restricted

    Universities can no longer allow police officers to search on-campus dormitories without warrants under a recent court ruling that grants college students tenant-like protections that were previously withheld.

    The appeals case, which re-appeared recently in the San Jose District Court of Appeals, revolved around the search and seizure of 19-year-old Christopher Walker, a Santa Clara University student charged with possession of marijuana for sale after police officers collected evidence illegally from his dorm room.

    On Oct. 15, 2004, Walker was spotted smoking marijuana near the residence halls at SCU. After being confronted by campus security officer Kim Payne, Walker said he smoked marijuana for medical purposes, then invited Payne to his dorm room to present documentation from a medical marijuana club.

    While verifying the club cards, Payne discovered other supplies — such as scissors, miniature cigars and an electronic scale — which gave him reasonable suspicion to search further, the case stated.

    Payne eventually found large quantities of marijuana and $1,800 in cash, which was handed over to police officer Tyson Green, who arrived at the scene shortly after.

    Before entering, Green asked Payne if he had obtained consent to search the room. In response, Payne confirmed consent but added that permission was not necessary because Walker had waived his privacy rights by signing the campus’ housing contract. The police then entered and seized the evidence.

    The most recent verdict deemed the police search unlawful because the university did not have sufficient authority over dorms to grant third-party consent, but held that evidence could be used against the defendant — even if acquired illegally — because police would have obtained it from the university anyway.

    “The case ruled that universities, like landlords, don’t share occupancy with students living in dormitories, and therefore cannot provide the right for police to enter,” UCSD Student Legal Services Director and attorney Elyce C. Morris said.

    This is good news for students, according to Morris, because it overturns past judicial motions that had placed all Fourth Amendment authority in the hands of universities.

    The question of dorm searches is relatively undocumented, with the only California precedent, People v. Kelly, dating back to 1961. In that ruling, the jury granted the university sole control over occupancy, use and investigation of dorm rooms, placing considerable reliance upon housing rules.

    Instead of upholding the 45-year-old decision, Walker’s case gave precedence to more recent rulings that have promoted a university-student relationship closer to landlord-tenant contracts, Judge Richard J. McAdams stated at the end of the report.

    “Society and the courts have progressed from a view of college officials as substitute parents … to a contemporary view of the university as an educational community of adults,” McAdams stated.

    While the court decision strengthens student privacy rights, Morris said, it ignores another issue — “apparent authority.” The term refers to someone else’s perception that a person has the right to act based on legitimate authority, as was the case with Payne.

    “It’s an interestingly written decision in that they deliberately sidestep answering the big question [of apparent authority],” Morris said. “Until they answer that, police officers still may say, ‘Well, we reasonably believed that security officers had the apparent authority to give us consent to enter.’”

    While the written case leaves this query pending, McAdams added a “dicta,” or formal opinion, at the end of the document that doubted the campus officer’s apparent authority. Morris called the addition “enlightening.”

    The case also poses implications for the way resident security officers regulate dorms, according to Morris.

    She said that as far as she is aware, RSOs currently lack a campuswide method for enforcement — which may yield inconsistent responses. She also stressed the need for specific, clear reasons to attempt entry into a dorm room.

    “[RSOs] don’t know what’s happening behind the door unless they enter, or unless they have X-ray vision,” Morris said. “We don’t live in the world of science fiction, right? If there’s a door and you can’t see behind and you have no right to open, then one could argue that the only reason you should be trying to enter is if you believe there is something wrong.”

    She added that students should be able to refuse to open their door for law enforcement, unless officers have a warrant, or if some other exception exists.

    Morris said that she hopes that the ruling will lead to discussion about UCSD’s student privacy policies and the training of residential life staff, security officers and police officers to interact with each other in a consistent manner to better uphold student rights, which should not be ignored.

    “[Students] are here and [they] should be comfortable in [their] homes,” Morris said. “You don’t leave your rights on the street when you walk onto this campus as a student. I think it’s about time that the law catches up with reality.”

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