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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Student Fourth Amendment rights in jeopardy

The Fourth Amendment stipulates that the people be protected against “”unreasonable search and seizure”” and that searches require a warrant, which are issued only “”upon probable cause.”” However, a new decision in a Massachusetts Fourth Amendment case offers legal precedent for searches of dorm rooms by police without a warrant, which (though it does not apply in Arizona) could be used as a template for such cases in universities across the country.

Last month, a Massachusetts appeals court ruled that Boston College campus police acted lawfully in conducting a dormitory search, conducted without a warrant, which uncovered several bags of illegal drugs. The residents were summarily charged with a slew of drug trafficking offenses.

Campus police were informed that a resident of the dorm room had been seen waving a knife. Since the possession of weapons on campus violates Boston College regulations, officers went to the room. According to the court decision, after Sgt. John Derick knocked and identified himself, “”A male voice on the other side of the door replied, ‘Hold on. I’ve got to get my pants on.’ The door opened a few seconds later, and Derick entered the room.””

Though they initially denied any wrongdoing, the residents were nevertheless read their Miranda rights and eventually admitted to the possession of a knife, a “”spiked martial arts weapon”” and a replica firearm. Though all of these items are legal under Massachusetts law, each is prohibited by Boston College regulations. Sgt. Derick then produced consent forms to authorize a search of the room, which the residents signed, and discovered the drugs, which, of course, violated both Boston College and Massachusetts law.

The lower court ruled that the police had acted unlawfully because they had not been given explicit permission to enter. But the appellate court found no wrongdoing because the initial entry, based upon weapons allegations, was consistent with university “”plain view”” search policy, and the officers behaved appropriately — not as government police officers but as private security contractors in the employ of the university, who operate with fewer legal restrictions.

Though their initial access was legitimate only because they were acting as private security, after discovering the drugs, the officers were free to begin acting as government police. But, as the Arizona Desert Lamp insightfully notes, the students were read their Miranda rights — clearly the act of government police — before any waivers had been signed, while the officers were still purportedly acting as private contractors.

Boston College security officers (who happened to be, somewhat incidentally according to the appellate court, state police) were allowed to enter a dorm room without explicit permission because such behavior is permitted by the Conditions of Residency signed by dorm residents, which allow “”plain view”” searches without consent for “”reasons of health, maintenance, upholding community standards (including safety and discipline) or inspections.””

Contrast that with the UA’s University Undergraduate Housing License Agreement Form, which reserves the right “”for authorized personnel to enter and inspect rooms at any time to verify inventory records or occupancy; to perform maintenance; to enforce safety, health or University Student Code of Conduct or Housing Community Standards; or during an emergency.”” Far from the Boston College Conditions of Residency agreement, which allows such officials only the right to conduct a plain view search, the UA’s license agreement allows personnel the right “”to enter and inspect (i.e., search) rooms”” without consent – not even requiring a warrant or forms such as the Boston students puzzlingly signed.

Campus police, following Boston College’s disturbing precedent, could conduct a warrantless search at any time as private security officials and then immediately use the results as evidence after assuming the role of police. Unless the UA amends its housing policies to forbid searches of dorm rooms by any investigator, private or public, without due process, it will be greatly restricting the freedom of its students.

— Ben Harper is a philosophy major and aspiring Constitutional law professor. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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