Thursday, October 12, 2006
College Campus Security Guards Lack Authority to Consent to Police Search of Dorm Rooms—C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
University campus security guards lack authority to give police valid third-party consent to enter and search students’ dormitory rooms, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Calling the issue “one of considerable constitutional significance,” Justice Wendy Clark Duffy, writing for the court, said:
“We perceive of no legitimate reason to distinguish between privacy expectations reasonably enjoyed by college students in occupying dormitory rooms with those experienced by tenants occupying houses or apartments. Nor do we believe that college students should have less protection from unreasonable searches and seizures in their dorm rooms than occupants have in their hotel rooms.”
The court’s resolution of the issue, however, was of no benefit to the defendant, Christopher E. Walker, as the justices affirmed his conviction after concluding that the evidence obtained in the search was admissible under the inevitable discovery doctrine.
In 2004, Santa Clara University Campus Safety Service Officer Kim Payne observed Walker smoking what appeared to be marijuana on campus, according to testimony. Walker admitted he was smoking marijuana, and told Payne he had more in his dorm room for medical use. He invited Payne to come up to his room to see the marijuana and his medical marijuana card.
When the two met at Walker’s dormitory, Walker unlocked his room door and escorted Payne inside. Walker removed a sandwich size plastic bag of marijuana from a drawer in a closet. Payne saw a knife, a pair of scissors, four miniature cigars—sometimes used for making ‘blunts,’ small cigars stuffed with marijuana—and a small electronic scale on the desk near the doorway.
Walker said there wasn’t more marijuana in the room. But when Payne checked the top drawer in the closet, he saw an open box of snack size plastic bags, a plastic bag of several disassembled cigars, and several snack size plastic bags with marijuana remnants inside. Another drawer contained a cooler with two sandwich sized bags full of marijuana. In another drawer, Payne found $1,800 in cash. Walker claimed he had won the money playing cards.
The University Campus Safety Office contacted the Santa Clara Police Department and reported that a considerable amount of drugs had been found in a dorm room. When officers arrived outside Walker’s room, they were met by another campus security guard, Michael Brady, who said, “You’ve got to see this,” and swung open the door to Walker’s room.
The officers were able to see a large quantity of marijuana in plastic baggies and cash on the desk just inside room. The marijuana was in plain view and openly visible to anyone in the hall outside the door.
After Payne and Walker approached the officers, the officers asked Payne if he had received consent to search the room. Payne said he did, but that it wasn’t necessary because of the waiver Walker had signed in his residence housing contract. Both officers then entered the room and seized the items.
Walker was charged with possession of marijuana for sale. He moved to suppress evidence of the items seized from his room, claiming they were the product of a warrantless and unreasonable search and seizure.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge David Cena granted the motion, and prosecutors appealed.
“[W]e conclude that defendant enjoyed the same Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures in his dormitory room as would any other citizen in a private home.”
The justice said her conclusion was unaffected by the fact that the housing contract Walker signed allowed university personnel to enter his room without notice or permission “where there is a reasonable suspicion that a violation of the law . . . is occurring.”
“These terms of occupancy, while constituting consent to the University’s entry into defendant’s dorm room under certain circumstances, cannot be reasonably construed as defendant having given such consent to others,” she said. “In particular, these contract terms do not constitute defendant’s agreement to nonconsensual warrantless searches and seizures of his private residence by the police.”
The jurist added:
“Nor could the Housing Contract be so construed, since such purported advance consent to warrantless police searches would be an illegal waiver of defendant’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.”
Although the court agreed with Cena that the search and seizure were invalid, it held that the motion to suppress should have been denied because the evidence would have inevitably been discovered. Duffy also said the issue of whether the search could be upheld because police reasonably believed Payne had authority to consent was a close call which the panel didn’t need to decide given its conclusion that the evidence would have been discovered anyway.
The case is People v. Walker, 06 S.O.S. 5451.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company