College students have constitutional rights concerning searches in their dormitory rooms and illegally seized evidence may be excluded from criminal prosecutions. But, these rights are not absolute, and exceptions can have an impact on college students charged with drug crimes.
Reasonable residence hall contracts may allow a warrantless search. Usually, residence staff members may inspect rooms for safety or health reasons. In one case, however a student was prosecuted at a Massachusetts college for illegal possession or cultivation of marijuana after university staff searched a dorm room.
Earlier, they posted notices when they would enter these rooms to conduct a search for a cat. Officials later searched the room when the student was not there. They noticed a light in a closet. Fearing a fire hazard, they opened the door and discovered two large marijuana plans, growing lights, fertilizer and other cultivation equipment. Campus police were summoned and, without a warrant, photographed evidence and removed it.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that college officials could lawfully enter the room without a warrant to enforce a valid health and safety rule. They could also open the closet door when they saw a light for that reason.
However, the warrantless search by the police violated the student’s constitutional rights because they were not lawfully in the room when they saw the evidence. Their search related to law enforcement where there is no Fourth Amendment exception. Campus police should have sought a warrant after receiving information from college officials.
Generally, students have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their dorm rooms like those enjoyed by apartment tenants. Students can consent, in a lease or housing agreements, to searches by university officials. However, these must be related to a criminal investigation unless there are urgent circumstances, or the search is associated with an arrest.
Students should seek legal assistance to assure their rights are protected during dorm searches or other investigations. There can be long-term consequences from a law enforcement or college investigation.