Search and Seizure on Campus: Fourth Amendment Rights at Yale – by “Cameron M”

In a recent email to his students, Pierson College Dean Amerigo Fabbri outlined the guidelines surrounding the college’s annual ‘Inferno’ dance party. The email explained that no parties would be permitted in Pierson dorms during the Inferno and warned: “Officers will be patrolling the courtyard and the entryways beginning at 9 p.m. If they hear excessive noise coming from your suite they will visit your room.”

Although I don’t believe anyone tested the policy this weekend, I’m prompted to ask what a student’s rights would be during a ‘visit’ by an officer. The Yale Police Department issued 19 infraction tickets to students during last year’s Spring Fling, many during warrantless and unannounced dorm room ‘raids’ that left students confused. Do Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure extend to Yale dormitories?

If an officer asks to enter and/or search your dorm room, can you refuse the request? What requirements must be met before an officer can legally enter a student dorm to conduct a search? Do these answers vary depending on whether Yale Security, the Yale Police Department, or the New Haven Police Department is involved? Extending these questions to the digital domain: Do students have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the Yale Network? Are emails, browsing histories, and other digital records protected, as they would be on a private home network?

A quick reading and keyword search of the Yale Undergraduate Regulations reveals no mention of the words ‘search’, ‘seizure’, or ‘warrant.’ In addition, Yale does not provide students living in on-campus dormitories with a formal lease agreement, a document that often includes policies on privacy and search regulation at other colleges.
Yale’s policy on electronic privacy is much clearer, with the University’s Information Technology Appropriate Use Policy outlining “circumstances in which, following carefully prescribed processes, the University may determine that certain broad concerns outweigh the value of a User’s expectation of privacy and warrant University access to relevant IT Systems without the consent of the User.” The University may access relevant information without user consent to comply with local, state, and federal laws, (including during the execution of police warrants), upon reasonable belief that University technology policy has been violated, and for a select number of other reasons. The explicit description of these policies clarifies, and at least somewhat reduces, concerns about policies on digital privacy and information search and seizure at Yale. A similar policy outlining regulations on traditional search and seizure and dorm room privacy is necessary and long overdue.

Even in the absence of University policy, search and seizure on college campuses is a widely legislated issue, mostly in state courts. In 2007 at Boston College, two students were arrested for possession of marijuana and cocaine after a campus police officer entered their dorm on suspicion of a violation of the University’s weapons policy. The students subsequently consented to a full search of the room, during which the illegal drugs were found by officers. Despite their consent to a search, the students argued that the initial entry into their dorm room by the university police officers violated their Fourth Amendment Rights, and that any subsequent searches and seizures were invalid. In 2009, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled against the students, citing that, as a private institution, initially enforcing institutional policy, the university and its officers were not required to abide by search and seizure limitations laid out by the Fourth Amendment. Although a permanent link is not available, the actual ruling can be found here, by searching for the docket number: 09-P-810.

However, similar cases have seen different outcomes in other state courts. In 2008, a Washington State Court of appeals ruling asserted that campus police had no right to randomly enter and patrol dormitory hallways, in which there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, as there would be in a usual apartment building or similar residence. Further, in a case involving Santa Clara University, a private institution, a warrantless dorm search conducted by police with permission from campus security officers was deemed unconstitutional. The dorm was considered the private residence and concern of the student, and therefore only the student, and not campus security, was deemed eligible to grant permission for a search.

As in the case of the 2010 Spring Fling, warrantless (and unannounced) dorm room searches have been and continue to be conducted at Yale. As of now, none have been challenged in court, and it is difficult to predict what the results of such a challenge would be. Especially considering the blurring of the private versus public enforcement distinction (with the Yale Police Department existing as a sort of middle ground between campus security and local police) and with the lack of any clear University policy, an uncomfortable state of ignorance seems to surround the entire issue. Perhaps greater student interest or concern would force the University to address some of the ambiguities that exist.

Regardless, students should not expect the protection of their constitutional rights to be put on hold while they attend college. We should expect a clear university policy that respects the spirit of these rights, rather than attempts to stretch the limits of legal search and seizure on campus. When acting to enforce Connecticut state law rather than simply University policy, Yale Police officers should be held to Fourth Amendment standards. Even without legislative action, the University should recognize that unannounced, warrantless searches by officers acting in such a capacity are unreasonably invasive and that dorm rooms truly are the private residences of students, just like any home or apartment.

Note: I have contacted Marichal Gentry, Yale College Dean of Student Affairs to ask for a clarification on Yale’s policies regarding search and seizure in dorm rooms. I will update this post as soon as I am able to get in touch and receive an answer.

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