Fourth Amendment Rights of Students

2010-12-30 07:50:29 by admin

According to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution,

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated; and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause . . . and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Fourth Amendment has far-reaching ramifications in higher education with respect to searches of students’ dormitory rooms or their persons incident to drug testing of participants in intercollegiate athletics, whether in public or private institutions of higher learning. This entry reviews litigation in which courts have examined the Fourth Amendment rights of college and university students.

Dormitory Searches at Public Colleges and Universities

The Supreme Court’s only case involving the Fourth Amendment rights of college students was Washington v. Chrisman (1982). Chrisman dealt with a search of a dormitory room that took place after a police officer at a public university watched a student who appeared to be under the legal drinking age of 21 leave his dormitory while carrying a bottle of gin. The officer stopped the student and asked for identification and then accompanied the student to his room so that the student could obtain his identification. While the officer was standing in the doorway, he noticed what he thought were marijuana seeds and a pipe on the desk. The officer then entered the room, confirmed that the seeds were marijuana, decided that the pipe smelled of marijuana, and informed both the student and his roommate of their rights. When asked whether there were other drugs in the room, the roommate gave the officer a box containing more marijuana and cash. Once a second police officer arrived, both students waived their Miranda rights to remain silent or to have an attorney present and voluntarily consented, orally and in writing, to a search of the room. The search yielded more marijuana and another controlled substance, leading to the roommate’s being charged with two counts of possessing the controlled substances.

After the Supreme Court of Washington invalidated the search that led to the roommate’s criminal conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in favor of the state. The Court held that it was not unreasonable for the police officer to have accompanied the student to the dormitory and to have remained in the doorway. Given that the officer was present lawfully and that the marijuana had been “in plain view,” meaning that it was openly visible in the room from the doorway, the Court held that the seizure of the drugs did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

As reflected by the illustrative cases reviewed in this entry, lower courts, both before and after Chrisman, addressed the Fourth Amendment rights of college and university students in disputes involving searches of dormitory rooms that led to their facing criminal charges for possessing illegal drugs. Such cases have had mixed results. Moore v. Student Affairs Committee of Troy State University (1968), an early dormitory search case, involved the search of a student’s dormitory room by two state narcotics agents and the university’s dean of men. When the search turned up a matchbox containing a small amount of marijuana, the student was suspended indefinitely. Although a federal trial court found that the hearing process denied the student of his constitutional right to due process, a second hearing resulted in his again being suspended.

When the student challenged his second suspension based on an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, he was unsuccessful. A federal trial court, relying in part on a university regulation that granted institutional officials the right to enter dormitory rooms for inspection purposes, ruled against the student. In the court’s view, the student waived his right to object to reasonable searches that were conducted pursuant to the university’s regulations. Moreover, the court thought that the regulation was a reasonable exercise of university’s responsibility to maintain discipline.

In State v. Hunter (1992), a later case in which a view much the same as that in Moore was expressed, an appellate court in Utah upheld the search of a student’s dormitory room at a state university by the director of housing, a custodian, a football coach, and a university police officer. The search, which had been prompted by incidents of vandalism in the dormitory, proceeded from room to room. When the searchers entered the plaintiff’s room, they saw a sign and a banner in plain view, both of which were stolen university property. This evidence was seized, and the student was later charged with misdemeanor theft. The student then succeeded in having the evidence of the stolen property suppressed at his criminal trial on the ground that the warrantless search of his dormitory room violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

On further review, an appellate court upheld the legality of the search under the Fourth Amendment, citing Moore with approval. As in Moore, the court ruled that the officials legitimately exercised their authority to maintain the educational environment. The court pointed out that the student had both signed a housing contract that gave officials right of reasonable inspection and had waived Fourth Amendment objections to the university’s exercise of that right. The court was untroubled by the fact that a university police officer participated in the search, because the housing director initiated the search without input from the police, who took part for the sole purpose of assisting the director with any problems that he might not have been able to handle on his own.

Other courts have been more protective of students’ Fourth Amendment rights. In Piazzola v. Watkins (1971), the Fifth Circuit considered the constitutionality of a dormitory search at a state university that was similar to the one in Moore. State narcotics agents and university officials discovered marijuana in dormitory rooms occupied by two students, who were later convicted for the possession of marijuana and sentenced to five years in an Alabama prison. Upholding a federal trial court’s grant of habeas corpus in favor of the two former students, the Fifth Circuit determined that students who occupied college dormitory rooms enjoy the protection of the Fourth Amendment despite the existence of a university regulation reserving the right to search dormitory rooms. The court observed that such a regulation could not have been construed as giving consent to a search pursued primarily for the purpose of gathering evidence for a criminal prosecution. Otherwise, the court wrote, the regulation would have been an illegal attempt to force students to waive their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures as a condition of residing in college dormitories.

In an interesting case from the same era, Smyth v. Lubbers (1975), a federal trial court in Michigan considered the constitutionality of disciplinary proceedings instituted against two students who were discovered to possess marijuana during searches of their dormitory rooms. College officials and two campus police officers who were also county deputy sheriffs participated in the searches, which had been conducted without warrants. As a result of the disciplinary hearing, both students were suspended. College officials had not filed criminal charges against the students at the time of the court’s decision, which solely concerned the college’s disciplinary process.

The court began its analysis by clearly endorsing the principle that college students have an important privacy interest in their dormitory rooms, an interest that is protected by the Fourth Amendment. To this end, the court posited that because student dormitory rooms are, for all practical purposes, their homes, they have the same interests in the privacy of their rooms as any adults in the privacy of their dwellings. The court refused to interpret the fact that students agreed to allow officials to search their rooms in their housing Contracts as waivers of their constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. In the court’s view, the search was unreasonable, because authorities had not obtained a warrant issued on probable cause, and therefore the students were entitled to have the evidence seized during the unconstitutional search excluded from admission in the disciplinary proceedings.

Finally, in a more recent case, United States v. Heckenkamp (2007), a graduate student in Wisconsin was charged with a federal crime based on allegations that he hacked into the university’s computer system. University officials were working with FBI agents on an investigation of the hacking activities, and the FBI was in the process of obtaining a warrant to further its investigation. A university employee was concerned that the student might damage the computer system before a warrant could be obtained. Accompanied by university police officers, the employee entered the student’s room and disconnected the computer there from the university’s network. The employee also wanted to run commands on the student’s computer but did not have the access password. An officer located the student, who voluntarily provided his computer password so that the employee could run the commands. The student was later charged with a federal crime and sought to suppress the evidence against him on the grounds that the searches involved in the investigation, including the search of his computer, violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment. While recognizing that the student had a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his computer, the Seventh Circuit upheld the search. The court concluded that a limited warrantless remote search of the computer was justified under the “special needs” exception to the warrant requirement because of the harm that the student could have caused by his unauthorized access to a protected computer without authorization.

Dormitory Searches at Private Colleges and Universities

Officials at private institutions of higher education are not subject to Fourth Amendment constraints when they search students’ dormitory rooms unless they act in concert with law enforcement authorities. For example, in State v. Burroughs (1996), when a student occupied a dormitory room in a private college, as a condition of living in campus housing, he and others were required to consent to unannounced and unscheduled searches by campus officials. After the college’s director of residential life learned that illegal drugs might be in the student’s room, he searched it and discovered a white powdery substance resembling cocaine. The director then notified a dean who contacted the local police, leading to the student’s being charged with a drug offense.

The student unsuccessfully sought to exclude evidence of his dormitory search on the grounds both that the director acted as an agent of the police and that the search was conducted without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court of Tennessee conceded that a relationship between college officials and the police might have made the officials police agents who were subject to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. However, the court refused to treat the director as an agent of the police when he conducted the search, because his authority to search the room was in furtherance of college policy, not police business. Moreover, the court noted that the director searched the room before college officials contacted the police and that the search did not take place at the request of law enforcement authorities.

Other Searches in College or University Environments

Most cases involving the Fourth Amendment rights of college students involve dormitory searches. Even so, at least one published case involved other kinds of searches such as of student purses, mail, or briefcases. In People v. Lanthier (1971), the Supreme Court of California reviewed the constitutionality of a warrantless search of a student’s library carrel locker by library employees at a private university; the search was triggered by a noxious odor emanating from the locker. When a library maintenance worker opened a briefcase in the locker, he found 38 packets of marijuana, which apparently gave off an odor because of a preservative that had been added to it. The court upheld a criminal conviction that stemmed from the search on the basis that the smell coming from the locker constituted an emergency.

Drug Testing in Intercollegiate Athletes

In Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a school board’s random drug-testing program for student athletes against a Fourth Amendment challenge. Further, in Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls (2002), the Court upheld a random drug-testing program for high school students engaged in Extracurricular Activities. At the college level, the Supreme Court of Colorado ruled that a state university’s drug-testing program for varsity athletes violated the Fourth Amendment and state constitution (University of Colorado v. Derdeyn, 1993). Conversely, in Hill v. NCAA (1994), the Supreme Court of California reasoned that the NCAA’s drug-testing policies for college varsity athletes did not violate the privacy provision of California’s constitution. The court ruled that while the privacy provision applied to the NCAA, the privacy interests of intercollegiate athletes were outweighed by the NCAA’s interest in preserving the integrity of competitive athletics as well as the health and safety of student athletes. Earlier, in Bally v. Northeastern University (1989), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected a claim that a private university’s drug-testing program for varsity athletes violated the commonwealth’s civil rights act and privacy legislation.


As the litigation discussed in this entry reflects, lower courts have upheld warrantless searches even when security personnel participated in searches, notwithstanding the fact that the Supreme Court has not articulated constitutional guidelines regarding the Fourth Amendment rights of college and university students in their dormitory rooms. An important element in these cases concerns the motivation for the searches. The prime consideration for courts in upholding searches was whether officials acted in furtherance of their own policies or whether they were in concert with the police to advance criminal investigations. In the event of the former, courts usually upheld the constitutionality of the searches.

Students who are searched outside their dormitory rooms generally have the Fourth Amendment rights of other citizens who are searched and enjoy no special status arising from the fact that they are students. Although lower courts reached mixed results on drug testing of athletes, in light of the Supreme Court’s rationale in both Acton and Earls, it seems likely that any federal challenge to random drug testing of intercollegiate student athletes would fail.

Richard Fossey

See also Drug Testing of Students; Due Process, Substantive and Procedural; National Collegiate Athletic Association; Privacy Rights of Students

Further Readings

  • Jones, E. O. (2007). The Fourth Amendment and dormitory searches. Journal of College & University Law, 33, 597–623.
  • Smith, M. C., & Fossey, R. (1995). Crime on campus: Legal issues and campus administration. Phoenix, AZ: American Council on Education & Oryx Press.

Legal Citations

  • Bally v. Northeastern University, 532 N.E.2d 49 (Mass. 1989).
  • Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002).
  • Hill v. NCAA, 865 P.2d 633 (Cal. 1994).
  • Moore v. Student Affairs Committee of Troy State University, 284 F. Supp. 725 (M.D. Ala. 1968).
  • People v. Lanthier, 448 P.2d 625 (Cal. 1971).
  • Piazzola v. Watkins, 442 F.2d 284 (5th Cir. 1971).
  • Smyth v. Lubbers, 398 F. Supp. 777 (W.D. Mich. 1975).
  • State v. Burroughs, 926 S.W.2d 243 (Tenn. 1996).
  • State v. Hunter, 831 P.2d 1033 (Utah. App. 1992).
  • United States v. Heckenkamp, 482 F.3d 1142 (9th Cir. 2007).
  • University of Colorado v. Derdeyn, 863 P.2d 929 (Colo. 1993).
  • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (U.S. 1995).
  • Washington v. Chrisman, 455 U.S. 1 (1982).