Police in the dorms: Security or invasion of privacy?
by Hannelore Sudermann, Annette Ticknor '07 | © Washington State University
One Friday night last winter, a Washington State University police officer walked past the open door of a student's room in Stephenson East and looked in. She smiled and said "Hey," and received a cool "Hi" in reply. As soon as she walked past, the student shut the door and clicked the lock.
Officer Dawn Daniels has come to expect a range of reactions as she patrols the hallways of residence halls. Sometimes she gets a friendly "Hello." Other times, the doors slam.
In spring 2006, the right of Daniels and her fellow WSU officers to patrol the halls came into question, when an officer following his nose and his instincts discovered illegal drugs in student rooms in two separate cases.
After the students' attorneys filed motions challenging the legality of the searches, Whitman County Superior Court judge David Frazier '73 determined that the officers' presence in the dorms was a violation of the University's own policy—that no one other than residents and their guests are allowed on the residential floors of the building. The judge ruled that students had a "reasonable expectation of privacy in the corridor/hallway" that was violated by the institution of the patrols. On that basis the cases were thrown out.
This wasn't the first time police presence in WSU residence halls had been tested. In 1978, a police search of a WSU dorm room resulted in the arrest of two students for drug possession. The case, Washington v. Chrisman, made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, setting nationwide precedence for police searches in college dorms.
The incident involved an officer catching a student carrying a bottle of gin. The officer approached the student and asked for proof that he was of legal age to possess the alcohol. The student didn't have his identification, so the officer accompanied him back to his dorm room to get ID. There, from the doorway, the officer spotted what looked like marijuana seeds and a pipe. That led to a search of the room and the discovery of more marijuana and some LSD. Both the student and his roommate were arrested, charged, and convicted. As with the more recent cases, the students' attorneys challenged the legality of the search, citing the students' Fourth-Amendment right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Washington State Supreme Court determined the officer had no right to enter the room without a warrant, a decision that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in 1982. The majority opinion, written by Justice Warren E. Burger, argued that since the first student was under arrest, the officer had the right to accompany him to his room and did not need a warrant to seize the contraband in plain view.
Now the issue of police in WSU's residence halls has made news again. Frazier's ruling caused the criminal charges to be dropped and at the same time forced the University to suspend dorm patrols last fall. The following winter the WSU Board of Regents changed campus rules to allow University employees, including maintenance workers and police officers, access to the semi-private halls.
But by spring 2007, when police were increasing their presence in the hallways and community spaces, many students were no longer used to seeing officers in their halls. Some complained that the patrols were there to catch them partying. Joe Fortunato, a junior who was running for ASWSU president, campaigned on the issue. He said students are uncomfortable with the notion of the police patrolling where they live, though they hadn't been outspoken about it. "I don't have the police in my house patrolling between my bedroom and bathroom," he said. "I can see where they're coming from."
Carolyn Long, an associate professor in political science at WSU Vancouver who focuses on civil liberties issues, says she could see how the new rule allowing police in the halls could create the possibility of fishing expeditions, with officers trolling for illegal activity like underage drinking. Still, police can often go places the general public can't, and they can make a good argument for doing so in the interest of public safety, she says.
It's a timely issue, says Long, especially since Fourth-Amendment protection nationwide has dropped precipitously over the last two decades. Interpretations of what is reasonable have changed, she says. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that evidence collected in a case in which police failed to knock and announce before searching a residence could be used in a criminal case. "There has been a complete shift in the court's perspective," says Long. Under the Warren court of the 1960s, very few searches took place without a warrant, and evidence collected during an illegal search could not be admitted.
In contrast to the national trend, Washington law offers individuals greater protection, she says. The state has a very narrow exception for warrantless searches.
To be clear, though, WSU officers are not in the hallways looking for problems, says Officer Daniels. "The patrols are pretty much there just to be seen," she says. Without the WSU regents' revision of campus rules to allow University employees in the residence halls, student resident advisers were the only ones watching out for the safety of students. "The students are good kids, for the most part," she says. "But there's all kinds of things that happen in the halls. If we weren't there, things could get out of control."
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