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Dorm room has lower rights

A student's dormitory room may be their home away from home, up to a certain point. University officials have broad powers to search these residences and play a possible role in the investigation of college student crimes.

Public universities provide more Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures to students and require warrants in more situations. There are exceptions for a warrantless search in emergency situations where the imminent risk of harm makes obtaining a warrant impossible, a student consents to the search or the authorities see items in plain view when they enter the dorm room legally.

A major exception to warrant requirements is that many college and universities have housing agreements with students or policies. These usually give their officials have the right to enter and search a student's room for specific reasons that provide for the health and safety of the institution.

These usually include institutional searches, which may be random, concerning the school's drug, alcohol or weapons policies. At times, campus police may still need a warrant to search if other college officials, who are not law enforcement personnel, report evidence of potential illegal activity.

Rules are less stringent for private colleges and universities. The Fourth Amendment does not restrict its employees who are not law enforcement personnel, such as residence hall director, who are conducting a search for valid institutional purposes.

If campus police for private institutions enter rooms to enforce rules, as opposed to obtaining criminal evidence, their search may be considered reasonable. They can usually accompany university officials if they do not play an active role after entering the room. However, a student's constitutional rights may be violated if the play an active role in the search or make an arrest.

Students should learn their university's privacy and entry polices. They may consider politely refuse searches from campus security or police. Keeping silent helps prevent their inadvertent admission of crimes. Certain conduct, such as smoking marijuana in a dorm room, may provoke a search because the smoke and odor are a give-away of illegal activity.

A student should seek legal assistance when these searches occur because these may have long-term consequences. An attorney can help assure that their rights are protected if a search leads to criminal or administrative action.

Source: The Catholic University of America Office of General Counsel, "Whose room is it anyway? Lawful entry and search of student dormitory rooms," accessed Nov. 15, 2017

Source: Flex your rights, "What are my rights in a college dorm?" accessed Nov. 15, 2017

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20120 Route 19, Suite 208
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Cranberry Township, PA 16066

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