Warantless Drug Searches on College Campuses

The Fourth Amendment of the constitution protects people from unreasonable search and seizures, but the law is not as clear-cut in some particular circumstances.  One grey area in search and seizure law involves searches conducted at student housing owned by colleges.  College campuses are unique in that they create their own set of laws and policies that their students need to abide by while attending the school. Universities generally have very strict policies, including rules that could be seen as infringing on the students 4th Amendment rights.  Is it reasonable for universities to be able to conduct warrantless search and seizures on campus living facilities? The 4th Amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizures, but is it considered reasonable for universities to be able to conduct random searches of students living on campus? There are two primary means by which universities may bypass a students Fourth Amendment right:

1.      Courts deem attending a university and residing in a school owned building as a voluntary waiver to follow the university polices and laws. Student routinely sign contracts consenting to random searches by school officials when living in a school owned facility.

2.      The University’s inherent duty to keep the student’s facilities safe with inspections, i.e. checking fire alarms systems give schools a regulatory exemption to conduct warrantless searches.

Living on a college campus is much different than living in a house or apartment of your own because the college itself owns the land and the buildings.  By going to, and living on a college campus you often times have to give up certain rights of expected privacy in your dorm room.   Princeton University’s alcohol and drug policy states, “The University respects the right to privacy, and its representatives will not enter dormitory rooms without substantive cause (e.g., without reasonable suspicion that University policies or regulations have been violated, or that someone’s safety is in jeopardy). However, those whose behavior infringes on the rights of others have, in essence, forfeited that privacy.” (Princeton University Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities).  By attending Princeton University a student is voluntarily waiving his 4th amendment rights and agreeing to abide by their policies. If an officer suspects that a student is breaking university policies, not just New Jersey state laws, they have what is considered substantive cause to enter the room.  This is much different than living in an apartment building or house because there are no other laws resident needs to abide by other than state and federal law.  The right to privacy when living on a college campus is a grey area, and rules and regulations differ at every university, which is why it is so important to know your rights regarding privacy at your university.

A university has an inherent responsibility to keep its students safe from potential dangers that come with living in a dorm building.  Dorm buildings have a lot of potential threats of danger so rooms that need to be inspected routinely for safety reasons.  Rutgers University has a fire safety policy that states, “Due to the extreme dangers presented by fire hazards in student rooms, the University will continually monitor all living areas through Residence Life Staff visits and formal, unannounced inspections by representatives of the University Fire Department, the Division of Housing, and Residence Life” (Rutgers Residence Life).  This statement gives the University an exception to the students’ 4th amendment rights because their safety is the schools responsibility.  Routine safety and maintenance checks are part of the way a university is run, so the random unannounced checks are deemed reasonable.  

When discussing cases that involve the 4th amendment on college campuses, courts have held repeatedly in favor of universities being able to conduct warrantless searches on campuses if they are “reasonable”. Even without the waiver and consent exceptions, warrantless searches on campuses have been held within the boundaries of the 4th amendment in case by case scenarios. Even though courts have held that Universities have certain exceptions to bypass the 4th amendment, the search must still be reasonable within the totality of the circumstances. Multiple factors such as the basis and scope of the search are considered courts in deciding whether a search is reasonable under totality of circumstances. The grey area of 4th amendment rights students have on a college campus is a unique part of search and seizure law. It is important to get effective legal representation in deciding whether to challenge a search on a college campus.

The attorneys at Lubiner, Schmidt & Palumbo have extensive experience in search and seizure cases dealing with controlled dangerous substance/drugs and weapons charges as well as a host of other issues. Call for a free consultation to discuss the merits of your case and different potential options to consider. Please call 1-908-709-0500 to speak with one of our associates.