Warrantless Dorm Search Rejected

November 18, 2010

Courts continue to zig-zag on warrantless searches of college dormitory rooms -- with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on Wednesday rejecting the use of drug evidence found in 2007 in the room of two students at Boston College.

The ruling by the highest court in Massachusetts reverses an appeals court ruling last year that upheld the use of the evidence.

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 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 -- but there is dispute over whether the students consented to the search, which was on another part of the form that they did not sign. 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.

They challenged the indictments on the grounds that the evidence was discovered as a result of an illegal search.

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 appeals 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.

But the Supreme Judicial Court disagreed. It suggested that either the lower court judge or the appeals court could be viewed as making a reasonable analysis of the case -- and of the key question of whether the students consented to the search. But since the appeals court did not find "clear error" by the lower court judge who threw out the evidence, that lower court's decision should stand, the high court said.

"The judge was in the best position to assess the weight and credibility of the testimony given at the motion hearing. Although the appeals court reviewed the evidence presented and concluded that consent was voluntarily given, its alternate view of the facts and circumstances does not indicate clear error on the part of the judge, and we find none," said the high court's decision.

Some other court rulings in recent years on dorm searches include:

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