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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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