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Your rights as a college student

By February 25, 2016September 25th, 2023No Comments

To college students, dorm rooms are typically viewed as one’s ‘home away from home’- a haven to escape the often chaotic and tiring life or academia. Despite this sentiment, universities don’t treat dorm rooms as homes, and prohibit certain conduct in a dorm room. Universities perform dorm room searches to endorse the rules. So, if university or local police has recently searched your dorm room, or if you are about to be subject to a search, it’s important to know what to do (and what not to do)…stay calm, and know your student privacy rights.

Can the police search my dorm room?
The answer to this question can be convoluted and is usually dependant on your housing contract with your university. Most university housing contracts will outline your specific university’s policy on this issue. You are, for the most part, bound to the conditions you signed for the dorm room. So, the first step to answering this question is to find out whether your housing contract is a lease or a license agreement.

Is my dorm room contract a lease or license?
A lease and a license are two distinct forms of a contract. Generally, you have fewer rights with a license than with a lease. A lease is a contract that conveys an exclusive possessory leasehold interest in property; whereas, a license is a mere privilege to act on another’s property and does not confer or produce a possessory interest in the property1. Put more clearly, a lease gives you the right to possess the space or property, whereas a license gives you the right to use the space or property. This is similar to the difference between owning and just borrowing. For the term of your dorm room lease, you have some ownership rights of the dorm. You potentially would have the legal right to keep anybody, even police, out of your room. Alternatively, a license does not give you this same right.

Does the Fourth Amendment protect me?
The Fourth Amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”2. Fourth Amendment rights as a college student can become confusing, as university contracts often undermine Constitutional rights. Upon entering your university, you are typically required to sign your housing contract wherein you agree to waive certain privacy rights. When signing your housing contract, you are technically giving consent to search your dorm room.

What if my room has been illegally or unethically searched?
It is important to remember that the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places. However, it is also important to remember that it only protects you against “unreasonable” searches and seizures. Again, you are bound to the contract you signed for your dorm. Accordingly, the reasonableness of a search must be determined regardless. It can’t hurt to respectfully decline consent to searches. Most likely, your contract will require you to consent to searches by both university and outside officials. If this happens remember to be polite to the police and decline to answer questions.

As a college student, I always stay aware that my room is subject to be searched at any moment. If you find yourself in trouble after a dorm room search, contact an attorney as soon as possible! An attorney that specializes in defending college students against conduct code violations will know exactly what to do. Make sure not to speak about the search with anyone, and try not to answer questions from university officials or police; anything you say may be used against you.

These materials have been prepared by Cohen Seglias for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

Shan Wu

Author Shan Wu

Shan’s professional and personal background gives him a unique understanding of academic institutions and the criminal justice system. A former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., he is at home in D.C. Courts and very familiar with all of the Washington, D.C. law enforcement agencies, especially the Metropolitan Police Department. His parents were university professors so he grew up in a university environment. He understands the mindset of academic institutions. As a prosecutor, he supervised in the misdemeanor crime section. This is the section of the Washington, D.C. prosecutor’s office that handles most college student cases. His understanding of charging decisions and how judges view these cases is invaluable to his student clients and their families. Shan served as a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for over ten years. During his tenure there, now Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. appointed him to supervisory positions in the Misdemeanor Trial Section and also in a police corruption task force. His outstanding legal work in the government was recognized through numerous Special Achievement Awards from the Justice Department as well as awards conveyed by law enforcement agencies and community groups. From 1999-2000, Shan served as Counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno, advising her on criminal and civil investigations, E-Gov, E-Commerce (electronic signatures, internet gambling, internet telephony, privacy & public access issues in electronic court filings), congressional oversight, and legislative review. His responsibilities included serving as liaison to the FBI, DEA, Criminal Division, Executive Office of United States Attorneys, National Institute of Justice, and White House Counsel’s Office. Shan serves on the D.C. Bar Association’s Hearing Committee of the Board on Professional Responsibility and is a past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association for the Greater Washington, D.C. area. He is a 1988 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, where he graduated Order of the Barristers, edited two law reviews, and was Co-Director of the Moot Court Program. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from Vassar College as well as a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Following law school, he clerked for the late Hon. Jerry Buchmeyer, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and the late Eugene Wright, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He is admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and Connecticut.

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