Policing the Dorms

Controversy at UMass raises issues of how far to go in fighting drug activity on campus.
December 13, 2006

Attempting to end its reputation as a party school, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has changed a number of police practices over the last couple of years to cut down on drug activity and to increase campus safety. But the changes have caused some student unhappiness -- evident in a protest Tuesday -- as convictions soar for drug use, and claims swirl that officers are violating rights by randomly patrolling hallways to catch students smoking pot.

“In 23 years of work here, this has been one of the quietest semesters,” said Barbara O’Connor, chief of police and director of public safety. “It’s the fruit of our labors.” O’Connor said that two policies have changed. First, officers now get out of their cars to check with the dorms’ residence advisers about problems. If anything is up, the officer will then go investigate. On some nights, something is up -- and it may not rise to the level that would have prompted the RA to call the police. “We never used to do that,” she said, adding that these discussions help the officers build relationships and trust with residence staff.

Second, when an officer has probable cause, such as numerous complaints about a certain room or suspected drug activity, the officer will go and get a search warrant. “We do more search warrants than we did in the past,” she said. O’Connor said that most campus police departments rely on consents to search, but she has trained her officers in probable cause procedures and they aggressively pursue drug activity. Officers perform around three probable cause searches each week and they usually result in an arrest. But O' Connor said that her department is trying to go after dealers and not casual users.

John Werner, joint president of the Cannabis Reform Coalition at UMass, said that hundreds of students protested Tuesday against police tactics and the recent uptick in arrests. He said that students’ lives are being ruined after arrests, and that the police have no legal right to patrol hallways where students expect privacy. “They will go up [into the dorms] for reasons that are very flimsy, and along they way they will arrest other people,” he said.

O’Connor said that officers do not have the time to randomly patrol hallways, and will only enter the dorm area if they have been notified of a problem. Still she cited regulations for Boston public housing as proof that police do have the right to patrol hallways. “In a residence hall, the expectation of privacy is even more diminished,” she said.

Her view is backed by Steven J. Healy, president of the International Association of Law Enforcement Administrators, who said that hallways are not private. “It’s called ‘going vertical in the residence hall,’” he said. “Universities have the responsibility to handle crime in their buildings.”

But many experts seem unaware of the law and some legal confusion remains. “My understanding is that hallways are private space,” said Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

“The likely answer is that the police will have a lawful right to be in such a location and to act upon any apparently criminal activity in ‘plain view,’” said Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park. “There would normally be a reasonable expectation of privacy in individual rooms, however.”

But a recent ruling involving Washington State University raises concerns about where the law might head in the future, said Charles DiMare, director of student legal services at UMass. In the ruling, a state superior court judge struck down the ability of WSU’s police officers to randomly patrol residence buildings, stating that students have an increased expectation of privacy in hallways. WSU is now appealing the decision.

DiMare said that officers' actions are legally sound when they leave the public foyer and enter hallways to respond to complaints or to execute a search warrant. Otherwise, they may be violating students’ constitutional right. “If you were leaving your room to go use the bathroom, you would expect privacy,” he said. “I would expect that the state of Washington got it right.”


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