A Massachusetts appeals court ruled Wednesday that Boston College police officers acted legally when they searched the dormitory room of two students without a warrant. The search, prompted by reports that the students had weapons in the room, found weapons -- which were legal, but violated college rules -- and also drugs, which led to indictments against the two students who lived in the room.
Courts are regularly asked to determine the legality of searches of dorm rooms, and the decisions vary based on a number of circumstances, including the state where the search took place, whether the college is public or private, and the details of the college's lease terms to students and the searches in question. Wednesday's ruling -- which reverses a low court's ruling throwing out the indictments that followed the search -- is likely to please campus law enforcement officials but may worry advocates for student privacy. The students can still appeal the ruling to the state's highest court.
In the Boston College decision, the appeals court found that college officials -- both in residence life and on the police force -- acted reasonably based on the college's rules. As a result, the discovery of the drugs was deemed legitimate.
A 2007 incident started the case. A resident director called campus police to say that she had heard from two students that a student living in a dormitory had been bullying students and waving a knife. Further, the students said that another student had seen the tip of a gun -- maybe a fake -- in the dormitory room of the knife-wielding student. Three police officers and two residence life officials then went to the dorm room in question, knocked and eventually entered when the students living there opened the door.
While the students first denied having any weapons, they eventually admitted to having a plastic replica of a gun, as well as a real buck knife and a spiked martial arts weapon. All of these items are legal under Massachusetts and federal law, but violate Boston College's rules, which ban not only real weapons, but toys or replicas.
At this point, the police officers asked to search the room for more weapons, and the students signed waivers indicating that they had received Miranda warnings and were consenting to the search. The subsequent search turned up: a bag of psilocybin mushrooms, a bag of marijuana, 12 bags of a white powdery substance believed to be cocaine, and a box with individual baggies of marijuana and paper containing various names and amounts of money.
The students were arrested, and indicted on charges of trafficking in cocaine, possession of psilocybin with intent to distribute, and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
A judge initially threw out the indictments, finding that the college police officers didn't have a right to be in the room, and that they thus didn't have the right to conduct the search (even though they had asked permission to do so). But the appeals court found that the search was legitimate. First, the court ruled that since Boston College's policies clearly ban the weapons, and the police officers were acting on a legitimate report about weapons, they had every right to enforce the college's rules.
Since the authorities were in the room legally, they also had the right to seek permission to search the premises, the appeals court ruled. The judges rejected the argument by the students that the college, by not telling them that they didn't have to consent to a search at that moment, made them think they had no choice.
The appeals court noted that the students were given -- and signed -- a waiver. "The defendants were college students whose age and level of education equipped them to understand what was being asked of them and that they had an option to refuse," the decision said. "Moreover, the written consent form advised the defendants that they 'may have a constitutional right to refuse' .... Indeed, the very fact that the police sought the defendants' written consent to search demonstrates that the police were not claiming the right to search further, but seeking permission to do so. A person of average intelligence would necessarily comprehend that refusal was an option."
Some other court rulings in recent years on dorm searches include:
- A 2008 ruling by a Washington State appeals court limiting warrantless searches in dormitory hallways.
- A 2007 ruling by a federal appeals court finding that a student had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" on his personal computer in his dormitory room, but that a university administrator -- in certain circumstances -- may be justified in conducting a remote search on that computer without a warrant.
- A 2006 ruling by a California appeals court that limited the right of local authorities to enter a dormitory room without a warrant, even if invited by a private college's police force to do so.