Search and Seizure in Your College Dorm


Can the campus police search your dorm room without a warrant? A startling new ruling suggests “yes.”

In 2007, Boston College police officers received a tip that two students were harboring weapons in their dorm room. Three officers and two residence life officials knocked on the students’ door. After some questioning, the students turned over a knife, a spiked martial arts weapon, and a gun replica, all of which were illegal on campus. Why did they cave? I don’t know. But it gets worse.

At this point, the police asked to search the room for more weapons, and the students consented by signing waivers. Upon searching the room, the police found felonious amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and psilocybin mushrooms. As a result, the students now face serious jail time.

A Massachusetts appeals court just ruled that this search was indeed legal. Since the police acted on a legitimate threat to campus safety, they possessed the right to enter (though not necessarily search) the room. Then, since the students presented the weapons and signed away their rights, police legally conducted the search and seizure.

IMPORTANT: If you have illegal drugs in your room, DO NOT consent to a search. The Fourth Amendment is on your side. Had the drugs been in plain sight, police could have seized them regardless. However, the students needn’t have signed the waivers. Although I clearly wasn’t there, I imagine the police bullied the students into believing that the right to refuse did not exist.

At Penn State, RAs and security officers can certainly knock on your door and enter if you open it. However, a student usually must commit a misdemeanor before residence life can even consider an official search. In the case of a misdemeanor, residence life officials or police officers must apply for a search warrant.

As the 2001 Patriot Act showed us, our society often finds trouble in balancing privacy rights with general safety. Perhaps if we redefined “criminal” behavior, we’d find our balance more easily. The shootings at Virginia Tech created the necessity to treat weapon reports with the utmost seriousness. However, why should students charged with drug possession face expulsion and jail time, especially at the expense of taxpayers?

If only we changed a few laws, the dreaded “room search” would lose its power to instill fear in the minds of students. If we focused our legal efforts on actual dangerous possessions, such as weapons, Big Brother may even become an ally rather than an adversary. Until that time, be wary of what you carry on campus and in your room. While we as college students sometimes feel that privileged sense of freedom, we are only as free as the university allows us to be.



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  1. A few clarifications are in order.  First, at Penn State, you do not have to commit a misdemeanor for a search.  As the regulations indicate ” A room search is conducted only when there is strong reason to believe that the occupant(s) of the room are in serious physical or psychological distress or that the room contains items that are contrary to University regulations (which include federal, state, and local laws). In most cases, an act of misbehavior will precipitate this concern.”  Misbehavior or violating University regulations is the standard, not a misdemeanor.

    Second, the students at BC in question were not simply charged with drug possession.  They were charged with drug trafficking, since the items found in the search included records that indicated sales and distribution to others.

    Third, the issue of college dorm or “only as free as the university allows us to be” is simply off the point.  This situation would have been identical in an off campus location, because the individuals signed a written consent to search, which included an indication of their constitutional right to refuse the search.  If I signed that same form, my own home could be searched without a warrant, because I consented.

    While you “imagine” the police bullied the students, there’s no evidence from the court case that suggests that happened.  I think the appeals court nailed it: “The defendants were college students whose age and level of education equipped them to understand what was being asked of them and that they had an option to refuse,” the decision said. “Indeed, the very fact that the police sought the defendants’ written consent to search demonstrates that the police were not claiming the right to search further, but seeking permission to do so. A person of average intelligence would necessarily comprehend that refusal was an option.”

    Don’t consent away your constitutional rights.

  2. Garrett Miller on

    I agree completely that everyone should be aware of their rights in regards to search and seizure, but something here strikes me –

    “why should students charged with drug possession face expulsion and jail time, especially at the expense of taxpayers?”

    Because they’ve committed an illegal act.  It appears that there’s a double standard here – weapons must be dealt with swiftly and decisively, while illegal drugs aren’t worth prosecuting, and students with them should be offered additional protection?

  3. John Stevenson on

    Don’t sign legal documents without reading them fully and/or speaking with someone legally knowledgeable, especially when the police are involved.

  4. That does seem to be Andy’s point, but he picked an odd story to make it, since it involves students who were drug dealers openly displaying weapons, not one involving recreational drug use.

  5. How about people, regardless of legal/illegal, don’t use them so none of this would be an issue.