Being Investigated on Campus

College students spend a significant amount of their time on campus, perhaps even living on campus. When your person and property are on a college campus, you may be subject to the jurisdiction of the college’s police department, or to campus policies regarding your behavior. So, when you’re a college student, you should be aware of your rights and responsibilities while on campus.

Seizures and Searches of Your Person

Your legal rights on a college campus are effectively the same as they are off-campus. You still have protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government under the Fourth Amendment and the right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment. This means that campus police officers cannot search or seize your person or your property without consent, a warrant, or exigent circumstances. For example, if a campus police officer stops you while you’re walking back to your dorm at night and asks you to let them search your backpack, you can say no. This doesn’t mean you should run away from police officers or interfere with the officer’s work, since this can cast suspicion on you. Instead, stay calm and ask the officer stopping you if you’re free to leave. If the officer says yes, quietly walk away.

Furthermore, campus police cannot force you to speak to them. You should decline to ask questions asked of you, and request to speak to a lawyer before answering questions if necessary.

Since campus police are held to the same standards as other police departments in our country, they are also empowered with the same authority, including to stop and frisk suspects as defined in Terry v. Ohio. Please note that “Terry” stops are only permissible when an officer reasonably believes a suspect to have committed a crime and to be armed and presently dangerous. Thus, while campus police cannot randomly stop you and pat you down, they can do so if there is sufficient reasonable suspicion. Say the campus store is robbed at gunpoint, and you’re found running away from the store with your hands in the pocket of your hoodie. In this situation, campus police may find it necessary to detain you to ensure you are not concealing a weapon and maintain public safety.

College campuses frequently employ private security guards, or contract with private security companies, who may not be endowed with these same powers. Security guards are not permitted to make arrests (except as a lawful citizen’s arrest) or conduct searches without the permission of the property’s owner. If circumstances do arise which would necessitate a search or seizure, campus security guards should briefly detain the suspect while awaiting the arrival of law enforcement.

Seizures and Searches of Your Property and Your Dorm

Your rights when interacting with college officials, such as RAs, are a little different. There aren’t many situations wherein college officials would effect a search or seizure of your person, but campuses frequently search students’ dorms and seize contraband found therein.

The protections of the Constitution are meant to limit the government’s power, and may not necessarily be applicable to campus employees. In their housing and enrollment agreements, many colleges build in clauses which impose consequences for refusing a search or otherwise impeding a campus investigation. You can still refuse to speak to campus officials and deny them entry into your dorm room, however you may face penalties such as suspension or expulsion. When you sign a housing or enrollment agreement with a college, be sure to read the entire form so that you understand what, if any, punishments may be incurred. Generally, colleges cannot incorporate a waiver of your constitutional rights as a condition of enrollment at their university. The housing agreement should outline when and why campus officials may search your dorm or person, which is usually limited to healthcode inspections or other safety regulations.

Although they cannot force you to waive your constitutional rights, campus officials may not always need your consent to enter your dorm. Searches for law enforcement purposes, like entering your dorm to obtain evidence of drug possession, must abide by the Fourth

Amendment’s rules as they apply to homes. Therefore, your RA cannot enter your room without your consent for the purpose of locating evidence that will be used against you in a criminal prosecution. Campus officials also cannot give police permission to enter your dorm room. So, even if your RA finds a marijuana plant in your dorm while conducting a routine inspection of your fire alarms, they cannot invite campus police into the room. The police, if notified that there is evidence of a crime in your dorm, must go through the traditional warrant process before entering your room, unless you consent to their entry or there are exigent circumstances at play. If, for example, there is a ticking bomb in your room, this creates exigent circumstances and would most likely permit police to enter your room, even without consent or a warrant.

Campus officials can, however, enter your room without permission or a warrant to enforce campus rules. Because you won’t be reported to the police for having a cat in your dorm, your RA can enter your dorm without first seeking your consent to determine if you are harboring said pet against university policy. The same applies for routine inspections pursuant to health and cleanliness policies. Every university has different policies regarding room inspections, so be sure to read your university’s housing agreement in full prior to move in.

UTC’s Housing Contract

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s 2023 housing forms and policies can be found here. The university divides entry of campus officials into dorms into three categories:

inspection, search, and emergency. Inspection refers to Health & Safety Inspections, search

refers to investigations of violations of campus policies or the law, and emergency refers to when there is a threat to persons or property. By signing the Housing Contract, students consent to allow campus officials to enter their dorm under these three categories. In the housing student handbook, the college states “on-campus authorities will not enter a room or apartment for the purpose of search except in compliance with state law and with the permission of the resident, or with the written permission of the Dean of Students or their designee.”

The Housing Contract also states the following about searches:

“University officials may enter the Leased Premises [the dorm], without advance notice to the Resident, to conduct a search inspection for the purpose of inspecting whether violations of university policies, rules, and regulations are occurring or have occurred inside the Leased Premises. A search inspection must be authorized in writing by the Vice Chancellor for Student

Affairs before University officials may conduct a search inspection. The Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs may authorize a search inspection only upon reasonable suspicion that University policies, rules, or regulations have been or are being violated inside the Leased Premises.”

In short, campus officials at UTC can enter your dorm without prior authorization to conduct an inspection or in an emergency. However, they must seek authorization from the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs upon a showing of reasonable suspicion before searching your dorm. Make sure that you hold your RA to university policy by demanding to see the Vice Chancellor’s signed authorization if they come to your dorm demanding to search the place.

If you are being investigated by campus police, or if campus authorities have violated your constitutional protections, you need a criminal defense on your side to help you fight any criminal charges and protect your education status. Reach out to Best & Brock to schedule a free consultation with one of our attorneys!

Please note that all statements made about UTC’s housing policy are based on their 2023 housing forms and are not necessarily applicable for any previous or future housing contracts.