Fourth Amendment and the College Dorm Room

If the campus police knock on your dorm room door, do you have to let them in?  Danny Bishop of Colorado State University explains that the answer is no.

As a freshman, a new home means a new set of rules. In the dorms, it is important to know the rules and always obey the law, but the law also entitles constitutional rights to dorm residents.

“Your dorm room is your castle, according to the Supreme Court,” said Kathleen Harward, director of Colorado State University Student Legal Services. “You have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures in your castle.”

Student Legal Services offers free legal advice to any CSU student taking six or more credits. The service is paid for by a $6.39 student fee every semester.

“You are under no obligation to open the door for anyone unless they have a warrant,” said Forrest Orswell, an attorney with Student Legal Services.

CSUPD Sgt. Aaron Turner said all the same search and seizure laws that apply to a private residence also apply to dorm rooms. This means a student can refuse a search of their room or property locked with a personal lock. Probable cause of a crime being committed can lead to the issue of a warrant allowing police to search property without consent.

Dorm rooms adhere to the same fourth amendment exceptions, that allow police entry without a warrant, as well.

“If officers believe that evidence is about to be destroyed, that a situation comprises a threat to human health and safety, or that a situation would otherwise impede the ability to investigate a crime, they can claim exigent circumstances,” Orswell said. “If a student ran into his room carrying drugs yelling he was going to flush them down the toilet, the officers could enter to prevent destruction of the criminal evidence.”

Orswell said, although search laws are the same for dorms as they are private residences, the student conduct code still applies to residents and incriminating evidence can lead to punishment even without a search. He said the smell of marijuana is an example of this.

If students refuse to open the door in a situation like this, the police will report the event to Student Conduct Services, which will determine if the student was ‘more likely than not’ violating the student conduct code. If it is decided that an infraction probably occured, sanctions may follow.

Marijuana use and possession, even with a prescription, is prohibited not only in the residence halls, but for all CSU students, as it is a violation of the Student Conduct Code.

RA and CSU senior Taylor Blomquist said if a resident ever has an encounter with the police, being courteous and avoiding confrontation makes the process a lot easier for everyone involved.

“When RAs and police do their incident reports, it is documented how the student behaved,” Blomquist said. “Compliance makes the process a lot easier.”

She said if RAs smell marijuana, they are trained to contact the CSU police department every time.

“Resident halls are a safe place for them to come home to,” Blomquist said. “The RAs’ job is to ensure safety, so we have their best interest in mind. If freshman have any questions, their RA is a great resource.”