College Students and Dorm Room Searches

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution – which applies to almost everyone, everywhere – protects people from unreasonable searches 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 manner in which the United States Supreme Court determine what or what isn’t unreasonable is based upon a balance of the subjective or personal feeling of people in our country (e.g., what most reasonable people believe would be an unreasonable search by law enforcement) balanced against legitimate government interests such as public safety, officer safety, etc.

Essentially, the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches without a warrant.

The first area that comes to mind when thinking about unreasonable searches and seizures is a home.

Searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are unreasonable. Payton v. New York, 455 U.S. 573 (1980).

There are, of course, exceptions – times when a home can be searched without a warrant – and those exceptions include:

1.A search of the home based upon consent given by a resident.

2.A search of the home after someone is lawfully arrested inside the home.

3.Items that are inside the home and in “plain view”.

College Dorm Rooms

We frequently have college students come into our office after being arrested or receiving a citation when law enforcement entered their dorm room and found contraband (e.g., drugs, weapons, etc.).

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 as people living in a house.

Furthermore, the same specific exceptions to the warrant requirement apply – that is to say, the same situations in which law enforcement would not need a warrant are applicable to college students in dorms. For an example, if a college student gives consent to search his or her room, the search is permissible. If a college student is arrested inside his or her room, a search of the room is generally permissible. If there is contraband in plain view, law enforcement can enter to room to seize the contraband.

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 consequences of violating your housing agreement. Many times, colleges or universities have terms within house agreements that impose penalties for students who refuse to allow searches of dorm rooms. Those penalties or consequences may include institutional probation, suspension or expulsion.

Of course, a student needs to consider the consequences of his or her refusal, but sometimes suffering a consequence from a college or university is much better than being arrested for a criminal charge.

Tips for College Students

College students should follow the same general rules as everyone else.

· Do not keep anything illegal in your dorm room.

· Never consent a search of your dorm room or residence.

· Do not leave anything that may be problematic out in the open for everyone to see.

If you or someone you know has faced legal charges based upon a search of his or her college dorm room, give one of the attorneys at the Berry Law a call.

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