Searches of Dorm Rooms – Your Rights as a College Student – Tips from a Criminal Defense Lawyer

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:image of police dog

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”. Image of Dorm Room 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.

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34 Responses to “Searches of Dorm Rooms – Your Rights as a College Student – Tips from a Criminal Defense Lawyer”

  • Evergreen:

    Great tips, and informative.

    Not sure if it has changed since, but when I was at EWU, the rules could vary between residence halls. One of them was a wellness dorm, where the students could not smoke or drink, even in an area where it was permitted. The hall I lived in was mainly for people above 21, but the rule was still, if the door to your room was closed, it was considered private area. The only security issue I had to deal with resulted from somebody making a prank call once, they had to do a building by building, room by room search because of it.

  • Steve Graham:

    At state schools, the rules are often listed online in the WACs – Washington Annotated Code. Usually the written policy has will try to state that you have little or no right to be free from searches, but the courts always interpret those narrowly, as the constitution would require. I represent a lot of kids at Eastern now, and it seems like the thing to do for the staff there is to crawl around on their hand and knees sniffing at the base of the door to see if anyone is smoking weed. Usually, they don’t boot you out of the dorms for the first offense, but the second time you are gone.

  • Good tips you got here. I haven’t experienced living in Dorms since I lived at my parents house when I was in college. I do agree however that privacy is a big part in living away from your guardians. It should be given full attention.

  • Nick:

    I wish i would have read this earlier. My RC (Resident Coordinator) called me down to here office because I was intoxicated the night before she said ill give you 2 options one i come to my room and search it for alcohol find it and you get in trouble or two I come up to the room with you and you turn over your alcohol and nothing will happen. Well as a freshmen on a dry campus i was scared and turned it in will after words while she was leaving my rooms she said i will let you know your consequences after words. After she told me I wouldn’t get in trouble.

  • Steve Graham:

    Ouch, Yes it looks like she is trying to pull a fast one. A lot of times authorities make promises (or imply leniency) and later screw you. I remember what a kids once told me when I was a young prosecutor “I want that in writing!” I hope it turns out o.k. for you, and thanks for visiting my blog.

    • Nick:

      You should definitely find was to get more people to read this blog especially college students. I feel like this happens all the time

  • Stephanie:

    I went to Gonzaga but transferred back home to Canada, and the dorm room search laws are different here. Dorm room searches are a lot more common, and college dorm rights are not much more than if you live in highschool and are 16 years old. Do you know Mr. Graham can a college search your dorm in Canada?

  • Samuel Hoggatt:

    My fraternity at the University of Idaho has members which stay in the dorms. The university is allowing incoming freshman potentials to stay with some students in the dorms. The rooms must be cleared of anything alcohol related or drug related. They say that they have the right to search the rooms, closets, drawers, etc…This is not an issue. However, they are also saying that they reserve the right to search a personable SAFE (or lock box)…I was just concerned that they dont have the right to make you open the safe or lockbox. If you break the rules for possessing alcohol or drug related items, you are susceptible to fines…Any help?

  • Tony Leva:

    Do you have any case law on this subject either searches that have been held as being useable or held as fruit of the poison tree

  • Victoria:

    A couple nights ago, My RA, along with four RDs showed up at my door saying it smelled like marijuana. I have a broken foot and was unable to get to the door in the timely manner that they would have liked, so they keyed into my room themselves. From there on out, I felt as though they were verbally attacking me. They claimed that I had been smoking in my room. They asked me numerous times, basically trying to scare me into a confession. However, I constantly told them I was not smoking in my room or on campus. They then proceeded with a search. I tried to argue with them about the search and said they need a warrant. They just laughed in my face like I was an idiot. They threatened me to call the police if I did not conform to a search. Since I did not want the police involved, I allowed them to search. They checked everything from under mattresses to my personal belongings. They did not find anything except an empty alcohol bottle, which they confiscated, and a few smoking bowls, which they did not confiscate. Getting to the point, this issue is still not over and they have been carrying it out for days. With finals around the corner and everything else going on, I feel as though they are targeting me and making a bigger deal than it has to be, especially since they did not find any marijuana in my dorm. I attend a private college in Massachusetts by the name of Bay Path College. I am 20 years old. I cannot find or gain access to the handbook anywhere, even online. If you have any suggestions, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank You

    • Sorry to hear they are giving you a hard time Victoria. I looked online too and couldn’t find a policy. The rules really change from state to state. Massachusetts might have some pretty different rules over there. It sounds like you handled it pretty well. Even the police never bother to fingerprint or test pipes for DNA so I doubt they will be able to say whose pipes they were. Wish I could tell you more.

  • Mila:

    Would it be legal for a university to have as part of their dorm/residence hall contract a clause where the student consents that the university can conduct random searches of the student’s room? Would this be a violation of the 4th amendment, or would it be ok since the student knows of the rule up front and is signing a contract stating they agree with it? Thanks!

  • shea:

    What if there is a different type of issue in a dorm room, such as maintenance problems and water damage? My roof was poured through supposedly becuase the toilet in the bathroom above mine had a pipe break and flood their floor. My floor is soaked, a few of my things were ruined, and I’m concerned the water is not sanitary, in which case I am living in a serious health hazard. Suggestions? Also, this is happening in Massachusetts.

  • That really sucks, Shea! Considering what you are paying to go to your school! Don’t really know about that.

  • Stephen:

    This previous weekend we had two cops show up at our door claiming it smelled like marijuana. They asked if they could search our room and we denied. One cop went to get a search warrant while they other cop stood in our room holding the door open, and our building coordinator sat outside in the hallway. We asked if he was allowed to be in our room and he said yes, yet we never gave consent for them to come in. We are just curious if it is legal for the cops to stand in our room while requesting a search warrant. Also, if it is in fact against the law for them to be standing in the room, and we can prove it, would the charges for paraphernalia and/or alcohol posession (found during the search) be dropped?

  • I would talk to a local lawyer about this. Often times it is acceptable for the authorities to take steps to prevent evidence from being destroyed while the warrant is being obtained for the dorm room.

  • Gliddon:

    Why can an RA search your room? RAs shouldn’t be able to do dorm room searches of your belongings or property for weed. Searching dormitories should be done by law enforcement not RAs

  • Dani:

    Last night my roommate and I accidentally had left our dorm room door unlocked and my RA ventured into it when we were both out. We had an alcohol bottle tucked away at the back of our desk and covered up. However, when we had returned that night there was a note on the door saying, “come see me.” In the time that she had found the bottle and we had returned, one of our friends had taken the bottle out of the room, which initially belonged to them. So when the RA re-searched the room, she wasn’t able to find anything and is left with no proof. In the state of Georgia, we are looking for a flaw within the contractual clauses but aren’t sure how to go about this. Any advice?

    • My advice would be to refrain from making a statement until you can talk to a local lawyer. Almost all criminal defense lawyers do free consultation, usually over the phone. So I wouldn’t be shy, and just call one up. It is hard for me to say more because I am not licensed to practice in Georgia, and would really have to know more. And I would need to look at the specific rules and guidelines that your college has for RAs. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  • Kevin:

    I go to school in upstate New York and my roommate recently had his side of the room searched because an RA called due to the smell of marijuana (my side wasn’t searched because I was not there). Obviously because there was the smell of marijuana they could search without a warrant, but it made me curious if they could search at anytime without a warrant. I looked through my school’s dorm policies my room contract and couldn’t find anything stating whether UPD or the city police department could search without a warrant. Also, would either police department be able to search a safe or lockbox without a warrant? Do you have any advice for me with future interactions with the police for a warranted or unwarranted search of my room?
    Thank you,
    Kevin

  • Probably the only question I can really answer is the last one. I would just bit your tongue and not make a statement to the police. And don’t waive any rights, or invite them to come in. Always be respectful (unlike that guy at UK) but don’t consent to any searches. As to the other issues, keep in mind that school administrators can do routine searches to make sure people are not using candles, space heaters, not keeping pets, etc. if the policy allows that. But when police are looking for evidence of a crime, that is usually a different issue and they need a warrant. But this varies from state to state and you would need to talk to a New York lawyer.

  • Ted:

    I have a couple friends that went to Franklin College in Indiana. They had smoked marijuana in their room, they then proceeded to leave the room and go outside. One of my friends returned to the room a few short minutes later, after returning the RA and campus security came knocking. He had put a 1/2 ounce of marijuana and a scale in his personal lock box before they came in. They then proceeded to come in and search the room, not being able to find anything but having the smell in the air they asked if they could open his personal lock box and re refused. Since he did refuse they called the Franklin city police, when they got their they proceeded to open the lock box without a warrant. Inside they found the scale and the marijuana. They also found a box of baggies on his desk,outside the lock box, and arrested him. He has since been accused of selling marijuana on school property. He has also had newspaper articles written about the incident, saying he was dealing drugs on campus. My questions are; Is that legal for the police to open the lock box without a warrant? Can the police just assume the box of empty baggies is used for the distribution of marijuana even though the box wasn’t inside the lock box and he lives with a roommate (baggies could have been the roommates for all they know). This is his first offense with marijuana, involving the city police, if he does get this dropped or pleaded down, can he sue the newspaper for slander? He did have a job interview but seeing as he is accused of being a drug dealer the interview was cancelled. Please let me know what you think Steve, I would really appreciate it!

  • Laws vary from state to state, Ted, but in Washington, the police would certainly need a search warrant to go through a locked box like that. When drugs are found in a residence the police often will seize any sandwich baggies that are present. This is true even when the baggies are with the kitchen supplies. Again, a local lawyer would be the best to advise on something like this. It doesn’t seem like a suit against the newspaper would be possible. It depends on what the paper said. Usually they just report what the allegations are and what the police say.

  • willie marsalis:

    I have a couple of friends that always traffic through my dormatory window when im not on campus. Recently they were caught, and now have to appear in court next week for trespassing. The school emailed me saying that i have to appear in court as well. How do i express the fact that i wasn’t on campus at the time and should not be held responsible for my friends actions?

  • Spencer:

    Hello Steve, I was recently charged by school police for possession of alcohol and a few grams of marijuana. Is it possible for me to not get any charges since I have yet to sign the housing policy contract with the school? Pls let me know what I can do.

    • Not in Washington. Even if you don’t sign the policy, it is a “quasi-contract” and you impliedly agree to live by their rules when you are in the dorm. Check with a local lawyer in your home state. You may have other legal recourse.

  • Paige:

    I go to Mississippi State, and the other day my roommate came in just as our RA was leaving our room. She said she was doing “health and safety inspections” but my closet and desk drawers had obviously been rummaged through. We received and email 2 days later informing us that they were going to do health and safety inspections this week. I understand an RA can walk through and check for safety violations, but can they go through my things while I am not there without a police officer or warning me?

  • Jaci:

    I go to Georgia Southern University. During a fire drill, residence housing staff entered my room. They found a bottle of Smirnoff and my prescription medicine. I looked in my lease that they could only come in to rooms during “safety purposes; facility imporvements; routine mantainance; unit inspections during break periods; to manage rooms in the event of an emergency… Or to maintain a quiet environment.” I am 20 but all the medicine was prescribed and mine. They were not in plan view. They would had to of walked in my room to see it. My door was shut. They called a cop to my room. I signed a consent for searching. He did not find anything the staff did not report. The cop did not charge me with underaged alcohol possession. I am being send to judicial affairs though. I feel like my rights and privacy were violated. Is the law on my side?

  • Catherine:

    I am a dorm resident at CSU Stanislaus, and the RAs come into dormitories and do inspections while residents are not present. I watched my RA go into my roommates locked bedroom while she was gone and move things around on her desk and look in a jar she had on her dresser. Is this legal? It seems like it would be a breach of privacy to me.

    • I think it may be legal, as long as the police didn’t accompany the RAs to search for evidence. I am guessing your school would have a written policy that would permit this, but that is just a guess.

  • Candace:

    Long story but I’ll do my best to give only necessary details: a maintenance crew of my university (public, in Indiana) showed up to our university residences suite one morning without warning to fix something that we didn’t know was even broken. one roommate was in the bedroom asleep at the time and the maintenance crew reported us for alcohol that was out on the table in the living room. roommate woke up, crew left, she put the alcohol bottle in a box and shortly after a staff member showed up and asked to search the room in response to the report. she found alcohol in the box and in the fridge, neither box nor fridge belonged to the roommate who consented to this. bottles were seized and dumped. we are facing probation. our school has a student bill of rights with an amendment protecting us from “illegal search and seizure” that supersedes any contractual agreement with university residences. So I’m thinking we can get off since 1) we didn’t consent to university maintenance staff entering and then reporting (since spying alcohol on a table that they had no reason to look at constitutes as illegal search) and 2) because the roommate who DID consent did not have the right to do so, and 3) because we have the right against search and seizure despite any residence contracts. Thoughts?

    • Hi Candace. I have never had much luck getting dorm search thrown out of court when the initial entry was for maintenance. I am not saying it is impossible, it is just hard. Court really recognize a need for these guys to enter as needed, and really distinguish their motives from RA’s or RD’s that are just trying to snoop under the pretext of a “random” inspection. And once they are in there for maintenance, it is not a search to do a visual perusal from where they are standing anyway. So if it is on a table in plain view, that works against you. But beyond that it is really hard to say. A lot depends on your policies, and the laws are different in Indiana. Call a local criminal defense lawyer there. Criminal attorneys usually do free consultation over the phone.

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Photo of Steve Graham Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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