Prefrosh Preview: Know your rights

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be legal advice, but merely conveys general information related to legal issues commonly encountered by students at Georgetown.

Recent high-profile drug busts at the University have brought the issue of police searches to the forefront.

These people may really have committed crimes, but false arrests do happen. Remember, the Department of Public Safety is generally looking out for public welfare, not individual rights.

We the people…

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the government may not search a person or seize their effects in a place where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a dorm room or a telephone booth, unless a judicial authority grants police or other agents of the state a specific authorization based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Under the Exclusionary Rule, law enforcement may not use evidence against a person if it was obtained during the course of an illegal search.

General exceptions

These include a “stop and frisk” based on reasonable suspicion, seizure of contraband in plain view, search of a place in order prevent an emergency or secure volatile evidence, and searches conducted with the consent of the occupant.

Also, excessive noise, the smell of smoke, or any other indication of a potential safety risk will also allow any agent of the state to enter your room.

Students’ rights in dorms

Students have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their dorms, and the state may not violate it without warrant, period. There is no unified case law, but state and federal courts have held that the Fourth Amendment also applies when university officials are sworn officers of the state [1], they conduct searches accompanied by law enforcement [2], or when their primary purpose in conducting a search is to enforce of local law [3].

However, a housing contract can waive certain Fourth Amendment rights and allow University officials to enforce student conduct policy [4].

Several courts have also held that a university can legally turn over to police any evidence it obtains in the course of a search pursuant to its conduct policy [5].

University policy

The 2011-2012 Residence Hall and Townhouse Occupancy Agreement [PDF] allows members of the University staff to enter a room for “administrative, safety, and regulatory purposes.” They do not have to ask for consent and may enter a room after knocking and waiting a “reasonable” amount of time. The agreement also stipulates that they should leave a note whenever they enter a room (they never do).

If there is reasonable suspicion that a student is violating the Code of Student Conduct, University housing policy allows Vice President for Student Affairs, the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, the Associate Dean of Students, the Director of Residence Life, the Associate Director of Residence Life, or the Assistant Director of Residence Life to authorize a University official to search your room.

Keep in mind that these policies are subject to change without notice.

If you are faced with a warrantless search:

  1. Tell the search party that you do not consent to their entry if a police officer or other agent of the state is present and that police cannot enter without a warrant.
  2. Be firm but polite with a University official if he or she is acting alone. You may face sanctions for “failure to comply” if you do not obey basic instructions such as producing a GoCard.
  3. Inform the University official that you do not consent to the search. Write this in any statement that you might give.
  4. Write down in a statement whether or not the search was conducted while you were present
  5. Refuse to provide a statement that would incriminate you. An official may indicate that you will receive a lesser punishment if you admit to a violation. This is almost never true.
  6. Do not admit to any crime or otherwise incriminate yourself without first consulting an attorney. You can contact the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia at 800-341-2582 if you cannot afford legal counsel.

Special thanks to the Encyclopedia of Educational Law for background case information.


[1] Smyth v. Lubbers, 398 F. Supp. 777 (W.D. Mich. 1975)

[2] ibid

[3] Piazzola v. Watkins, 422 F.2d 284 (5th Cir. 1971)

[4] Moore v. Student Affairs Committee of Troy State University, 284 F. Supp. 725 (M.D. Ala. 1968)

[5] State v. Burroughs, 926 S.W.2d 243 (Tenn. 1996)

Image by Arthur Lien

2 Comments on “Prefrosh Preview: Know your rights

  1. You had my attention until the “Disclaimer.” “Agent of the state.” Priceless and don’t forget to speak to the officers in a condescending tone and let them know that your daddy is really, really important. This article should be detachable so that every student can carry it in his/her pocket for quick access.

  2. I am glad that the author of this post is well-versed in his student rights. John, can you give us an update on how things worked out for you after your trip out to the Esplanade?

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