Your Expectation of Privacy in Your Dorm Room Against Search and Seizure

Criminal defense lawyer

What do you do when your dorm room is searched?  I get this question quite a bit from students at Sam Houston State University.  First, hire an experienced criminal defense attorney before you speak with anyone.  The Sam Houston State faculty members and staff are very aggressive with what they consider to be drug and alcohol violations.  Your academic career may be on the line.  Don’t take chances.  A new decision by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas has given us some guidance as to what the current state of the law is on dorm room searches and seizures.

In State of Texas v. Mikenzie Renee Rodriguez, resident assistants (RAs) conducted a dorm room search of Ms. Rodriguez’s personal space.  The RAs found drugs and then called their director at the University who in turn called the police.  The police responded, entered the dorm room, and seized the drugs.  Ms. Rodriguez was then formally charged or indicted for possession of a controlled substance.  Ms. Rodriguez was smart and hired an experienced criminal defense attorney who then filed a motion to suppress.  The State of Texas appealed and the court of appeals affirmed.  In their holding, the court of appeals held that there is no dorm room exception to the Fourth Amendment.  The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas subsequently granted review.

As is typical in most college dorm rooms, Ms. Rodriguez shared the room with another student.  You may know that there is typically an agreement between you, the student, and the university which permits routine inspections by authorized university personnel.  The agreement at this Texas university provided that, “duly authorized personnel of (said university) reserve the right to enter student rooms at any time for emergency purposes or for the purpose of maintenance, repair, and inspection for health, safety, or violation of university regulations.  Here, the resident assistants were doing routine room checks for prohibited items such as microwave ovens, candles, and of course drugs and alcohol.  While performing a room check on Ms. Rodriguez’s dorm room, no one was present.   According to the RAs the first trunk that was checked had marijuana located inside.  The RAs then contacted the resident director who instructed them to do a more thorough search of the dorm room.  On the second search, the RAs found a matchbox with several tablets located inside that appeared to be ecstasy.  The RAs also found a pipe located in a sock.  The pill box and the pipe were laid on the floor and the RAs took pictures of the items.  The university police were then contacted.

An officer in plain clothes and a badge responded to the scene and the RAs took him into the room.  The officer entered the room and looked around.  The items of contraband were found in plain view.  The offer didn’t have a warrant and stipulated that it would have been easy for him to get a warrant.  The roommate returned to the room and found the officer, the RAs, and the resident director in her room.  They made her wait in the hall.  They then allowed her into the room to change her clothes.  The officer stated that he “checked” her clothes.  Whatever that means.  During this period, the officer never asked for consent to search the room.  The roommate was questioned and said the items belonged to Ms. Rodriguez.

Upon arriving back at the room, Ms. Sanchez admitted that the items were hers.  She admitted that the items were contraband and that the pills were ecstasy.  What is interesting is that the detective on this case admitted that the items were not “in plain view” in the traditional sense.  Rather, a civilian had moved the items from their original place.

The State of Texas argued that this is “a classic situation where someone who is not a state actor found drugs, notified law enforcement, and when law enforcement got there, it’s obvious and plain the minute they are on the scene what it is.”  The State added that if it were a search the resident director,  “an official at the university, would have had apparent authority to invite the officer in.”  The defense argued that the entry was a search and that no exception applied.

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas were not asked about the legality of the circumstances of the original search by the RAs.  That matter will have to wait for another ruling regarding the student housing agreement.  What the Court was asked to decide was whether the subsequent search by law enforcement with the invitation of the university officials was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Court has the same ruling as the court of appeals. that the university student, “retained an expectation of privacy in her dorm room even after it had been searched by private citizens and that the subsequent entry and search by law enforcement did not fall within any recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement.”

What’s the big picture here?  It’s that you still have an expectation of privacy in your dorm room, just like you enjoy in a hotel or your own home.  If you have been arrested and you feel your rights have been violated, you need to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.

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