Know your rights: the 4th Amendment on campus

Every year, scores of students are evicted from UA residence halls for alcohol and drug violations.

A cursory look at the Wildcat's popular ""Police Beat"" reveals that many of those evictions could be avoided if students merely exercised their rights. Unfortunately, too few students are aware of their Constitutional rights and their ability to stand up for them - and sometimes, the UA wants to keep it that way.

Before moving into campus housing, all UA students sign a license agreement - a contract laying out their financial and personal responsibilities. The majority of the document is devoted to rent and payment schedules, which makes it easy to overlook its most powerful line: section 15b, in which the university reserves the right ""To enter and inspect residence rooms by authorized personnel at any time to verify inventory records or occupancy; to perform maintenance; to enforce safety, health and University Student Code of Conduct or Housing Community Standards; or during an emergency.""

Sounds reasonable - there are many legitimate situations when the UA should have access to a student's room, like replacing a leaky air conditioner, turning off a wailing alarm clock or giving a resident medical attention. Unfortunately, sometimes enforcing conduct standards conflicts with a more important document: the Bill of Rights.

The fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure, requiring probable cause before any government actor can intrude on your privacy. Case law supports the notion that it extends to your dorm room: Morale v. Grigel held that public universities are subject to the fourth amendment, Smith v. Lubbers and State v. Kappes suggest that resident assistants are state actors unless conducting routine inspections, and the doctrine of ""unconstitutional conditions"" (see Piazolla v. Watkins) says that no matter how hard you try, you can't sign away your constitutional rights as a condition of living in a dorm.

Residence Life at the UA is bound by the law, and does its best to respect and protect the rights of students. ""A student's constitutional rights to do not end in the hallway or anywhere in the residence halls,"" Jim Van Arsdel, director of Residence Life, explained. ""We're not police officers - our goal is making sure that the halls are as safe as possible.""

To that end, Residence Life has a detailed policy on search and seizure in UA housing, allowing search without permission ""only when imminent danger to life is reasonably believed to exist."" Entry without search is only acceptable during evacuations and routine maintenance, and always subject to approval from Residence Life higher-ups. Of course, any search is possible with student consent - as easy to obtain as asking to ""come in"" or ""check in the fridge.""

Still, the policy offers sensible protections that exceed those at many other universities. UA deserves praise for respecting student privacy in principle. But in practice, the rules can be more problematic.

Resident assistants in campus housing are at the bottom of the bureaucracy, but are still agents of the state that runs the UA. The agreement signed by RAs each semester explicitly requires them to ""report all violations of community standards.""

Any student who's lived in residence halls knows what that means: RAs fall along a spectrum ranging from see-no-evil respect to overweening priggery. If an RA sees some infraction of the standards - policies on everything from toasters (not allowed) to noise (not allowed) to cocaine (not allowed) - they must file a report passed on to Residence Life's internal discipline system.

Enforcing the rules can be easier if students are unaware of their rights, and many are simply ignorant of their ability to refuse entry or a search. Residence Life doesn't decieve students about the extent of their rights, but has no obligation to inform them, either.

So students, know this: When any state actor knocks at your door, you have the right to turn them away. That action has consequences - if it's an RA, police may be called to obtain a search warrant. But students ought to be able to decide for themselves.

Of course, students should avoid needing to refuse a search. The easiest way is to follow the rules of life in the dorms. But college students occasionally do dumb, illegal things- and when they do, they ought to know their rights.

Those rights don't end in your backyard, on vacation or at school. There's no reason you should expect to give them up in a dorm. So next time your RA comes knocking, lock the deadbolt and tell him to come back with a search warrant: at least, if you're prepared to face the consequences.

Connor Mendenhall is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies and is the opinions editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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