Dormitory Search Cases

Several jurisdictions have held unreasonable the warrantless police searches of college dormitory rooms, even where school officials themselves had the lawful right of entry and gave the police consent. In Piazzola v. Watkins (5th Cir. 1971) 442 F.2d 284, the court invalidated a warrantless search of several Troy State University dormitory rooms conducted by the police in conjunction with school officials. There, a regulation provided that " 'the college reserves the right to enter rooms for inspection purposes.' " (Id. at p. 286.) In holding that the search was unreasonable, the Fifth Circuit stated: "A student who occupies a college dormitory room enjoys the protection of the Fourth Amendment. True the University retains broad supervisory powers which permit it to adopt the regulation heretofore quoted, provided that regulation is reasonably construed and is limited in its application to further the University's function as an educational institution. The regulation cannot be construed or applied so as to give consent to a search for evidence for the primary purpose of a criminal prosecution. Otherwise, the regulation itself would constitute an unconstitutional attempt to require a student to waive his protection from unreasonable searches and seizures as a condition to his occupancy of a college dormitory room. Clearly the University had no authority to consent to or join in a police search for evidence of crime." (Id. at pp. 289-290.) Similarly, Ohio appellate court held recently that "a college student's dormitory room is entitled to the same protection against unreasonable search and seizure that is afforded to a private home for purposes of the Fourth Amendment." (State v. Ellis (Ohio Ct.App., Mar. 31, 2006, No. 05CA78) 2006 WL 827376 (Ellis), 13.) In Ellis, Central State University resident assistants discovered marijuana in the defendant's dorm room while they were conducting an authorized, unannounced safety inspection. (Id. at 8, 9.) Campus police officers were then notified and went to the room. (Id. at 10.) While the campus police did not participate in the search, they were present in the room at the resident assistants' invitation. (Ibid.) The Ellis court concluded that the seizure of the marijuana was unconstitutional. (Id. at 20.) It found that while the resident assistants' search was authorized under the university's policies and procedures (id. at 15), the later police entry into the room was unlawful because it was made without a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances. (Id. at 18, 19.) The court explained: "The problem arises in this case because, after the resident advisors initially discovered marijuana in the Defendant's room and notified campus police, the campus police then came to the scene and entered the Defendant's room. ... By entering the Defendant's dormitory room, campus police infringed upon the reasonable expectation of privacy that the Defendant had in that place which ... is entitled to the same level of protection against unreasonable search and seizure as a private home. In order to lawfully enter the Defendant's room, police needed either a warrant, which they did not have, or an established exception to the warrant requirement." (Id. at 17, 18.) In so concluding, the Ellis court relied on an earlier decision of the Ohio Supreme Court. (See Athens v. Wolf (1974) 38 Ohio St.2d 237, 240 313 N.E.2d 405: "A dormitory room is 'home' to large numbers of students who attend universities in this state. Because of the very nature of dormitory life, privacy is a commodity hard to come by, however much desired. ... ... The defendant is entitled to more than a modicum of privacy in his dormitory room. As regards intrusions by law enforcement officials, we hold that the defendant is entitled to Fourth Amendment protection.") Likewise, in Commonwealth v. Neilson (1996) 423 Mass. 75 666 N.E.2d 984, the court held unreasonable the police search of the defendant's dormitory room at Fitchburg State College, which was conducted without a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances after college officials had discovered marijuana plants in the room. In so doing, the court rejected the commonwealth's contention that, because the defendant had signed a resident contract authorizing college officials to conduct reasonable searches to enforce college health and safety regulations, the police had received the consent of the defendant (through the college) to enter the dorm room. (Id. at p. 987.) Finally, in People v. Cohen (1968) 57 Misc. 2d 366 292 N.Y.S.2d 706, 709, the court rejected the argument that the defendant (a Hofstra University student) gave his implied consent to a police search of his dormitory room under the theory that "a student impliedly consents to entry into his room by University officials at any time, except at late hours." After noting that the search conducted by police and university officials was "a fishing expedition calculated to discover narcotics" (ibid.), the court concluded that "even if the doctrine of implied consent were imported into this case, the consent is given, not to police officials, but to the University and the latter cannot fragmentize, share or delegate it." (Ibid.; see also Smith & Strope, The Fourth Amendment: Dormitory Room Searches in Public Universities (1995) 97 Ed. Law Rep. 985, 987 where student signs waiver giving university officials permission to search dorm room for health, safety or maintenance reasons, "officials cannot delegate their authority to other individuals to conduct a search for other reasons".)