When you are in high school and living under your parents’ roof, you understand that your “rights” to privacy from any “searches” your parents wish to conduct are severely limited.
However, as an adult college student living in a dorm, you do have privacy rights that protect you from searches and seizures, most notably from the police. However, it’s not quite the same as living off-campus because university policy may allow for school officials to conduct searches of your living quarters. There may even be times when police are invited by campus officials to participate in these searches “for safety reasons.”
But our criminal defense lawyers want you to know that does not mean you have no say-so. It’s important to know ahead of time when you have the right to refuse, when you should speak up and when you should stay silent.
In general, it’s not a good idea to engage in illegal activity in your dorm room. Understand that if you are caught, your troubles may stretch far beyond suspension or expulsion from school. If the case is turned over to local authorities, you could be facing heavy fines, jail time and a permanent criminal record.
That said, never make the assumption that you have no choice but to consent to searches or answer questions.
The recent case of Medlock v. Trs. of IN Univ., reviewed by the U.S. Court of Appeals by the Seventh Circuit, touched on the nuances of such a case.
Here, the defendant, Medlock, was a sophomore at a university in Indiana, where he lived in a college dormitory. Per rules of the campus, the dorms were subject to routine inspections by graduate students who worked for the school. Students were given an e-mail notice one week prior to these inspections and they were announced on the dorm’s intercom the day of inspection.
During one of these scheduled inspections, graduate students entered Medlock’s dorm and discovered a clear plastic tube containing what appeared to be marijuana. there were also candles that had been burned, an ashtray with ashes and a rolled-up blanket at the bottom of the door. University policy forbid smoking of any kind in dorms, and also restricted the use of open flame materials, like candles.
Inside the student’s closet, the search team found a mature marijuana plant.
University police were called. A search warrant was obtained. Investigators, in addition to the aforementioned items, also discovered paraphernalia, such as a grow light and a scale.
The student was subsequently arrested and charged with felony possession of marijuana. Those charges, for “unexplained reasons,” were later dropped, though the school did suspend the student for one year. After this time, the student regained admission to the school.
(This is about the best-case scenario for which one in these circumstances could hope, but the student later sued the student inspectors and university police in a lawsuit that the appellate court called “near frivolous” and “offensive.”)
Some important take-away advice here:
- College students have the same rights to privacy from police searches as they would if they lived in a private apartment. Courts have generally held that even police patrolling dorm hallways may not be allowed, as these areas are not open to the public.
- Most colleges have rules that permit college staffers to conduct “reasonable” searches of dorm rooms. Resident handbooks should contain more information. A “reasonable” search usually includes a quick, cursory visual search. It does not mean rifling through your drawers, your closets or your belongings.
- If the police show up with school officials for a search (as sometimes happens), you are within your rights to ask police to wait outside unless they have a search warrant. The police may ask to enter, but you are free to refuse. The fact that you refused a search cannot be held against you in court. Your refusal to consent could later be important because it will give your attorney a basis on which to challenge the search under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. If you consent to the search, this argument will be out the window.
- Never volunteer evidence that could later be used against you. That means even if it seems obvious, don’t admit to ownership of any illegal items in your room. Don’t turn over any items not yet discovered. Never admit your guilt, even if the staffers or police imply that your cooperation will result in leniency. Such promises are rarely honored.