It’s a scary moment: a loud, crisp knock. You open the door to see two officers from Binghamton’s New York State University Police towering over you. “Can we come in?” they ask. You hesitate for a second, only to step aside, wondering if you even had a choice.
Believe it or not, you do. In fact, the senseless raids for pot being conducted all across campus — resulting in harsh disciplinary measures that deter no danger — are entirely avoidable. As students, you have essential rights that, properly exercised, can put an end to the abusive, unnecessary tactics of campus authorities. We have rights for a reason and it’s vital that we understand them.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that, as residents and students of Binghamton University, you possess the same constitutional rights as any ordinary citizen. Federal courts have ruled countless times that students “do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.” In particular, several court cases have established that a college dorm is a student’s “home,” and thus subject to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
What does this mean? In short, University police, as enforcers of state law, cannot enter your room without a warrant or — and this is the one that gets most students in trouble — consent. You are perfectly within your constitutional boundaries to deny an officer’s request to enter your room. Contrary to the beliefs of most students, doing so will not result in harsher punishment or treatment. You are simply exercising your rights as determined by the Founding Fathers. If the University police then want to obtain a warrant, so be it.
Now for the caveats. There is a gray area when it comes to resident assistants, resident directors, and other University personnel. Their rights are outlined in the University Housing License, which all on-campus dwellers have agreed to. Under that agreement, residential community staff may “inspect rooms … in the interest of health, safety, cleanliness and property control,” provided they give you 24 hours notice.
Then, of course, comes the biggest question: can an officer enter your room, without a warrant, if they smell marijuana from the hallway? The answer is no, unless there is an exigent (emergency) situation or you give consent. RAs or other staff, on the other hand, may enter your room if they have reason to believe there is a “health, safety, or maintenance issue” that needs to be dealt with (and yes, that includes marijuana). However, even in this case, University personnel may only “enter” — they cannot search.
As expected, there are countless legal issues surrounding this question. But it’s important to keep in mind that you have rights and are under no obligation to allow a search you do not want. As a general rule, if University police or staff do not have a warrant, your consent or an emergency situation to deal with, they may not search your room. Plain and simple.
And remember, these rights are carefully designed. They are not, as many contend, technicalities that simply have the unintended consequence of protecting drug users. No, our rights are a critical means of keeping law enforcement in check: protecting ordinary individuals against unscrupulous, abusive behavior that serves no public interest. Raiding a room in search of a harmless plant and criminalizing otherwise respectable students fall in that category without question.