The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution insures the right of people to be free in their persons, houses, papers, and effects from unreasonable searches and seizures. Evidence obtained by searches conducted in violation of the Fourth Amendment is inadmissible (i.e., “suppressed” or “thrown out”). Warrantless searches are generally considered to be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject to only a few well-recognized exceptions to the search warrant requirement. The State has the burden of proving the validity of a warrantless search by demonstrating that one of the well-recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.
The Supreme Court of Ohio has held that a college student’s dormitory room is entitled to the same protection against unreasonable search and seizure that is afforded to a private home for purposes of the Fourth Amendment.
However, the constitutionality of the search of a college student’s dormitory room becomes more complicated when the search is conducted by the university’s Resident Assistants rather than the police. The Fourth Amendment limits only official government behavior or state action; it does not regulate searches by private persons. The mere fact that evidence found and obtained during a search by a private person is ultimately turned over to the police does not destroy the private nature of the search and renders it official government action subject to exclusion from evidence at trial. If a private person acts as the agent of the police, however, the result is different. Police participation in the planning or implementation of a private person’s efforts to obtain evidence from a dormitory room may taint the operation sufficiently as to require the suppression of the evidence. The test of governmental participation is whether, under all the circumstances, the private individual must be regarded as an agent or instrument of the state.
When a Resident Assistant searches a dormitory room and follows the university’s policies and procedures governing residence halls, which generally authorize the residence staff to inspect student rooms at any time to determine compliance with the university’s safety and hygiene policies governing residence halls, then the search and any illegal drugs or other items of contraband will be deemed to have been properly obtained. On the contrary, if the Resident Assistants act as agents of the police in performing the search, where the police direct the Resident Assistants where and how to search and what to look for, then the such search will be deemed to be invalid.
It should be noted that the state cannot condition attendance at a state college on a waiver of constitutional rights, nor can it require students to waive their right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures as a condition of occupancy of a college dormitory room.
Searches of college dormitory rooms can involve a number of complicated legal issues. Although it may initially appear that a Resident Assistant was following university policies in conducting the search, in reality, the search may have been orchestrated by the police. Because any charges resulting from the search can have a great impact on your future at the university or your future employability, it is important that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
If you have more questions about police searches of college students’ dorm rooms, contact an experienced attorney at Horwitz & Horwitz today.