Colleges and universities across the country have ramped up security efforts in the post-Virginia Tech era, but a recent court ruling in Washington State calls for an end to random snooping in dormitories.
The state Court of Appeals ruling, which places limitations on areas where officers had once felt free to tread, has raised some concerns.
“What I hope we don’t lose is our ability to be with people who want us there,” said Bill Barden, chief of campus police at Washington State University. “That has always been the majority of dorm residents.”
The ruling stemmed from a case at Washington State, but it won’t dramatically change how police operate there, Barden said. Police rarely conducted random patrols of dorm hallways in the first place, and -- in response to a lower court ruling -- the department had already introduced an interim policy that would forbid the practice, according to Barden.
The June 26 ruling is tied to a 2006 case at Washington State, where the court concluded that a campus police officer had pushed the limits of the Fourth Amendment during a burglary investigation. The officer, Matthew Khurt, responded to a burglary on the 12th or 13th floor of Stephenson dorm, and then proceeded to conduct a “building-wide search of the interior hallways of the dormitory without a warrant,” the court stated.
Khurt required a passkey, which he was issued as a campus police officer, to access multiple floors in the dorm.
According to court documents, Khurt initially engaged in a “ruse” to gain access to a dorm room on the 6th floor that he found suspicious. When Khurt knocked on the door of the room, occupied by Jacob Houvener, he covered the peephole and referred to himself as “Matt,” not identifying himself as a police officer.
Houvener, a student, opened the door after Khurt eventually identified himself as a police officer and ordered him to open up. Houvener then proceeded to make incriminating statements -- without being read his Miranda rights -- and produced several items that he admitted to have taken in the burglary, court documents said. That evidence never made it into court, however, because it was obtained illegally, according to a Whitman County Superior Court judge.
The appellate court’s ruling cited several sets of circumstances in Stephenson dorm that created a reasonable “expectation of privacy” in the hallways. Among those reasons was the fact that the students on each floor share bathrooms, study facilities, lobbies and hallways that give the feel of a common home.
“Because of the intimate nature of the activities in the hallway -- most remarkably, towel-clad residents navigating the hallways to and from the shared shower facilities -- it is reasonable to hold that this area is protected,” Judge John Schultheis wrote.
The dormitory described at Washington State, however, bares little resemblance to most modern residence halls, according to Norbert Dunkel, president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers. Dormitories throughout the state, and even on Washington State’s own campus, often don’t have shared bathrooms and other communal-style amenities that are viewed as antiquated in modern designs.
“How do they then apply [this ruling] to apartment style or suite-style housing, or even graduate and family housing?” Dunkel asked.
Not surprisingly, Washington State University police have already considered the fact that some of the dorms on campus don't fit the communal living description that the court said created an expectation of privacy. Even so, Barden says it would be impractical for his department to create different policies for different dormitories.
The expectation of privacy in dormitories has been a subject of debate in academe for some time. Police at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for instance, faced protest in late 2006 when they cracked down on drug use in dorms.
Ruling Challenges Assumptions
The Washington court’s ruling challenges long-held assumptions that campus law enforcement officers have had about permissible police work. Lisa Sprague, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, says she’s never considered the hallways of dormitories out of bounds.
“Areas that we would consider sort of public areas, like hallways or lounges, normally police will try to patrol those areas,” said Sprague, associate director of public safety at Florida State University. “I’ve been doing this for 29 years and my experience always has been that housing officials and residents welcome you to walk the halls. It helps them feel more safe and secure.”
Judge Stephen Brown, who was among the three appellate court judges that heard the case, disagreed with his colleagues’ assertion that Khurt had no right to enter the dormitory hallway. But, in a concurring opinion, Brown still agreed that the officer lacked the authority to eavesdrop on Houvener or order him to open the door. As such, he didn’t dispute the appellate court’s decision to uphold a lower court ruling that made evidence gathered from Houvener’s room inadmissible.
But even if walking the halls is legal, as Brown asserts, is it really necessary, or even that effective? Pat Murphy, who does security consulting work for college campuses and other clients, isn’t so sure. Most campus police forces don’t have enough officers to devote to roaming dormitories, and they might not find much if they did, Murphy said.
“Unless somebody’s committing an extremely obvious crime, you’d be hard pressed to make much headway by just walking up and down the hallway,” said Murphy, president of the Houston-based LPT Security Consulting.
Furthermore, officers don’t usually have to look too far to find somebody drinking, smoking pot or otherwise getting into trouble on college campuses.
“Finding crime in a college dorm is like shooting fish in a barrel,” said Barden, who started in campus police work in the late 1980’s. “It’s just too easy, and that’s sad. But the more you try to be cute with trying to access that crime, I think, the more trouble you end up being in, given this [ruling].”
In 2006, there were 17 burglaries in residence halls at Washington State University’s main campus, according to data provided to the U.S. Education Department's Office of Postsecondary Education. That number was down from 25 the previous year.