Do Search and Seizure Rights Extend to Dorm Rooms?

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It is commonly understood that because of the protections granted by the Fourth Amendment the police cannot enter your home to search your property without a warrant and probable cause. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution – which applies universally to Americans almost everywhere – protects people from unreasonable searches by the government. However, the Fourth Amendment does not protect against all searches or seizures of property; only those that are determined by law to be unreasonable. This protection against searches in the home is true even when the resident does not own the property, such as when someone has a landlord or is living in an apartment building.  A common question is whether these same protections extend to students when living in housing owned by the university they attend.

The Fourth Amendment

In short, the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches without a warrant, and mandates that warrants have probable cause and be limited in scope.  The full text stipulates that:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized

Directly in the text of the Amendment is the protection against unreasonable searches on the person and in the house.  It has long been established that 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”.

These exceptions allow for searches to be considered reasonable and not in violation of a person’s rights.  But what about dorm rooms?  Can residence in a dormitory remove these protections or add another exception to the rule?

The Fourth Amendment and Dorm Rooms

Generally speaking, even though students are living in housing that is not owned by themselves or a private landlord, the protections of the Fourth Amendment are still in effect when it comes to police officers and search and seizure. Students cannot be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure by the police even when living in on campus housing. They hold the right to deny entrance to their dorm room, to require the law official to have a warrant, and to require the officials to have probable cause to obtain the warrant.

Where the rights may differ is when dealing strictly with university staff members such as an RA (Resident Assistant) or RD (Resident Director). The Fourth Amendment does not grant a student immunity from obeying the terms of a housing contract. Some universities even have clauses that penalize students for not allowing them to enter their room for a search. Each university’s policies may vary in their housing contract or agreement, so it is always important to look over them carefully and keep a copy for your records. Here are student rights in university housing from a few major universities in Nebraska:

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Dorms

UNL grants the students living in housing the same privacy rights that the federal and state laws grant all citizens. When living at on-campus housing, room entrances are only allowed when it is an emergency or repair situation that is considered necessary by the housing staff, or when legally required. The university also requires that any properly identified authorized personnel reserve the right to enter housing at a reasonable time to inspect a search only if deemed necessary. UNL states that certain reasons that staff may enter housing could include:

  • To enforce housing policies
  • To protect University Property
  • If invited by resident
  • To respond to a complaint
  • Repairs
  • Move-out
  • To respond to health or safety concerns

Reasons for entrance are not limited to these items, so it important to ask why they are requesting entrance to make sure it does not violate any set rights.

University of Nebraska-Omaha Dorms

The privacy granted to students at UNO is the same as the privacy granted to students at UNL. No entrance is allowed unless deemed necessary or with the student’s permission. UNO, however, has quarterly inspections that students must comply to. These inspections include housing staff entering the student’s dorm and verifying that the student is keeping their housing clean and sanitary. The students will be given a 24-hour notice prior to entry in these situations.

University of Nebraska-Kearney Dorms

UNK has the right to enter a student’s dorm for institutional purposes such as protecting the safety and health of students, enforcing rules, or other purposes deemed reasonable. The university will generally not conduct searches unless there is an emergency or a search warrant. The local police department might conduct or assume responsibility if necessary.

Nebraska Wesleyan University Dorms

Rooms may be entered for health and safety reasons, repair, damage assessment, inventory, determination of adherence to policies, or emergencies. NWU will give notice of entrance in advance to the student when possible.

Room inspections only consist of evaluating whether safety or living rules are violated. The search of personal belongings during room inspection is not allowed. If any of the student’s personal belongings are removed due to a policy violation, they must be notified. The student must be informed of the reason for inspection.

College personnel may only conduct room searches when there is reason to believe that it is necessary and that it will produce evidence of a violation. The student must be informed of the reason for the search, and should be present if possible. The consent to search a dorm is not allowed to be given by college officials to law enforcement. Searches by police must be conducted with a warrant or with the resident’s consent.

Creighton University Dorms

The university holds the right to enter a resident’s dorm for health and safety reasons, inspections of cleanliness, repairs or maintenance, to respond to an emergency, and to ensure that university rules and policies are being followed. If the resident requests a repair, permission to enter the dorm is assumed. Students’ bags may also be searched when entering or exiting university housing.

Fair Housing at Universities

Students are still protected under the Fair Housing Act even when living in university housing. This means that students can apply for and obtain housing without being discriminated against based on the following traits:

  • Race
  • National Origin
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Family Status
  • Disability

Tips for College Students

College students should follow the same general rules as everyone else when it comes to the Fourth Amendment. College student best practices include:

  • Do not keep anything illegal in your dorm room
  • Do not voluntarily consent to a police search of your dorm room or residence
  • Do not leave anything that may create reasonable suspicion of illegal activity out in the open for everyone to see

Of course, a student needs to consider the consequences of his or her refusal to allow university staff to search their dorm room, but sometimes suffering a consequence from a college or university is more favorable than being arrested for a criminal charge.  Students may be in breach of their housing contract by refusing entry to university personnel, and this could lead to eviction from housing.  However, maintaining fourth amendment protections could limit action by law enforcement.

Dorm Room Rights Lawyers

An experienced lawyer from Berry Law can help you if you feel your rights have been violated in your on-campus housing. Sometimes you may feel as if there are gray areas that are hard to navigate, which is why it is important to speak to a professional to help make sure you are protected. If you or a family member feel as if their rights were violated on-campus, contact Berry Law today to schedule a consultation.

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