Let’s face it. When you are in high school and living with your parents, you really don’t have any right to privacy in your bedroom. But you are in college now, and you do have a recognized constitutional right to privacy in your dorm room. Here is how it works:
1. Police Searches. For purposes of a search by the police, college students have the same right to privacy as they would in a private apartment. In addition, courts also question the authority of the police to be in the hallway outside a dorm room. After all, dormitory hallways are not open to the public.
2. Search by College Staff. Usually college rules provide that university staff (such as resident assistants and the maintenance crew) can conduct a reasonable search of a dorm room. Check your resident handbook on this. This usually means a visual search of the premises, but this does not give the school the authority to search through your closets, drawers, or belongings. These searches cannot be for the primary purpose of aiding in a criminal investigation, and university officials cannot delegate their search authority to local police.
3. When the police and school officials both show up at your door. School officials will sometimes request that the police accompany them on an inspection for “safety purposes.” Unless they have a search warrant, the police need to wait outside the opened door. The police will usually ask the student if they can enter, but you are free to refuse, and the fact that you refused cannot be held against you in court. Do NOT consent to a search, either verbally or in writing. When two armed police officers stand at your dorm room and ask “We are coming in, o.k.?”, the natural response is to say “alright”. However, that response completely gives up your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
4. Do not volunteer evidence against yourself. It may be the natural tendency of a college student to be cooperative, but it is best not to produce any evidence against yourself. If the resident director arrives for an “inspection” of your room and discovers a cloud of marijuana smoke, you may feel that there is not much harm that can be done by turning over the drug. However, that “cooperation” may mean the difference between facing a university disciplinary action, and facing a criminal charge and mandatory court appearance. If you are accused of stealing music over the campus internet service, it may not be in your best interest to turn over your laptop. If you are confronted by your R.A. for coming home highly intoxicated, it doesn’t help to voluntarily turn over any alcohol, because that gives the authorities actual physical evidence. The police might imply that your cooperation will result in leniency, but such promises are usually forgotten when the case reaches the prosecuting attorney.
Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer who represents many college students accused of crimes.