All college students should understand their legal rights when they head off to school. If you are not living at home while attending courses, you may face college dorm room searches, property seizures, or even criminal charges. It can be confusing to know when your constitutional rights have been violated. You may have questions, such as:
- Do you have to allow college officials such as an RA (Residential Assistant) or campus police into your dorm room?
- Can colleges search your dorm, or your dorm room specifically?
- Can an RA search your backpack?
- Can college officials seize items from your dorm?
The criminal defense lawyers at Berry Law have the answers.
How Does the Fourth Amendment Apply to College Dorm Room Searches?
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution – which applies to almost everyone, everywhere in our country – protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The Fourth Amendment does not protect against all searches or seizures of property – only those that are determined by law to be unreasonable.
The United States Supreme Court has historically determined which areas or types of searches are unreasonable. The Supreme Court must determine what is or what isn’t unreasonable based upon a balance of the subjective or personal feelings of people in our country (for example, what most reasonable people believe would be an unreasonable search by law enforcement) balanced against legitimate government interests such as public safety, officer safety, and more.
There is substantial legal precedent (prior case decisions and statutory laws) addressing the Fourth Amendment. Some of the precedent relates to college dorm room searches, but most of the scenarios deal with unreasonable searches and seizures in private homes.
Essentially, the Fourth Amendment prohibits an unreasonable search without a warrant. Extensive case law along with federal and state laws support the basic premise that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant must be reasonable. Without a warrant, any evidence obtained as a result of an unreasonable search is inadmissible in a court of law.
Like Most Laws, There are Exceptions
Just like most laws and rules, there are times when a home can be searched without a warrant and still comply with the Fourth Amendment. Those exceptions may include:
- A search of the home when a resident gives consent to search
- A search of the home after someone is lawfully arrested inside the home
- Seizure of items that are inside the home and in “plain view”
Are College Dorm Room Searches the Same as Home Searches?
At Berry Law, we frequently have college students come into our office when they were arrested or received a citation after law enforcement entered their dorm room and found contraband (e.g., drugs, weapons, etc.).
The good news is that the Fourth Amendment applies to dorm rooms just as it does to houses. This means that a college student living in a dorm room has the same rights with regard to their dorm room as people have when they are living in a house.
Furthermore, the same specific exceptions to the warrant requirement apply. In other words, the same situations when law enforcement would not need a warrant are applicable to college students in dorms.
For example, if a college student gives consent to search their dorm room, the search is permissible. If a college student is arrested inside their form room, a subsequent search of the room is generally permissible at the time of the arrest. Also, if there is contraband in plain view, law enforcement can enter the room to seize the contraband.
What About Dorm Room Searches by College Staff?
The Fourth Amendment may protect you from law enforcement or government officials entering and searching your dorm room; however, it may not protect you from the consequences of violating the provisions of your housing agreement. Many times, colleges or universities have terms in their housing agreements that impose penalties for students who refuse to allow searches of dorm rooms, even by college staff. Those penalties or consequences may include institutional probation, suspension, or expulsion.
Of course, a student needs to consider the consequences of their refusal, but sometimes suffering a consequence from a college or university is much better than being arrested for a criminal charge. Be sure to read the details in your Nebraska college housing entry and search rules to know what college officials can and cannot do on your campus.
Tips for College Students Who May be Subject to Dorm Room Searches
College students should follow the same general rules as anyone who wants to protect their constitutional rights.
- Do not keep anything illegal in your dorm room.
- Never consent to a search of your dorm room or residence.
- Do not leave anything that may be problematic out in the open for everyone to see.
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Turn to Berry Law if You Were Subject to an Illegal College Dorm Room Search
If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges based upon a search of a college dorm room, reach out to Berry Law to speak with one of our experienced defense attorneys today.