Warrants important for students’ rights

By Marc Larocque

With increased police presence on college campuses and in residence halls, students need to be aware of their fourth amendment right to request a search warrant before allowing police or resident life staff into their rooms, according to a report by Attorney Charles J. DiMare.

At Northeastern, it is also uncommon that a search warrant is demanded by a student before entrance is granted.

“Sometimes campus police officers involve the use of search warrants, though it is rare that they need search warrants to investigate an incident,” said Jim Ferrier, associate director of public safety at Northeastern. “The university police are governed by the same constitutional requirements as any police when investigating.”

Students possess the same Fourth Amendment protections as any homeowner. Police must secure a search warrant based upon probable cause and established through one or more credible affidavits, according to the report, “Fourth Amendment Protections of Dorm Rooms.”

DiMare, director of student legal services at University of Massachusetts Amherst cites many court cases in which students caught with marijuana are dismissed of charges because police or resident life staff conducted an illegal search.

The majority of these cases maintain that a search cannot be based on a college’s authority to maintain discipline over young students, the report said. Although colleges may reserve the right to enter the rooms of students for inspection purposes, such a regulation cannot be interpreted as having consent to search for evidence for the primary purpose of criminal prosecution.

“It has come up sometimes in [Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution] trials that students requested a warrant for police to search their room,” said Valerie Randall-Lee, director of OSCCR. “But, Northeastern also maintains its rights in the license agreement to search rooms.”

The Northeastern residence license agreement states: “Residence Life and Housing Services reserve the right to conduct a search of student rooms as deemed necessary in the interest of order, safety or health of residents.”

Officers patrol all parts of campus on a constant basis, Ferrier said. “The patrols take them indoors as well as the exterior,” he said.

Ferrier said Northeastern generally does not have regular police patrol the upper living floors of the residence halls unless police are requested because of vandalism incidents or to follow-up investigations on previous incidents.

Residence life staff are trained to make two phone calls, one to the police and the other to the residence director on duty, if they feel a rule is being violated in a residence hall, said Bob Jose, director of residence life.

Elizabeth Mallon, a freshman journalism major, called the police presence “overkill.”

“Word gets around that [the police are] here and everyone acts on their best behavior, but as soon as they leave, everyone goes back to doing what they always do,” she said.

In fall 2005, Northeastern had 76 cases in which students were charged with possession or consumption of illegal drugs. Of those, 41 were found responsible, said Randall-Lee. This past fall, there were 51 cases in which students were charged, and of those, 29 were found responsible.

“The university police are governed by the same constitutional requirements as any police when conducting criminal investigations,” Ferrier said. “If anyone feels that their civil rights are broken, there are due process and remedies.”

Students protested at UMass on Dec. 11 in response to changes in how police officers monitor dormitories. The protesters claimed police are conducting more random patrols of dorm hallways and that it is causing an increase in the amount of students cited for smoking marijuana in their rooms.

UMass Campus police rely mostly on students’ consent to search the rooms, but lately they have been obtaining more search warrants, according to the article. They perform about three probable cause searches each week, which usually result in an arrest.

Northeastern freshman business major Carly Collins said the officers in the hallways are just doing their jobs.

“I’ve seen them walking around the dorm, but it’s no big deal. They’re not doing anything really; there’s just a threat when cops are here,” Collins said. “If you’re dumb enough to get caught you deserve to be caught.”

– Staff writer Jessi Savino contributed to this report.

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