Protocols to search and seize

Administrators outline policies for room searches

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects a citizen from unreasonable search and seizure without the use of a search warrant. On a college campus like Lafayette, though, that right has its caveats.

When dealing with violations of college policy, public safety, if given probable cause, can gain authorization to enter and search a student’s room without obtaining a search warrant from a judge as designated in the school’s housing contract.

“You’re assigned and authorized to use this designated college property, subject to all the rules of the college,” Director of Public Safety Robert Sabattis said. “You implicitly, perhaps explicitly accept that when you accept college housing.”

Once proper protocol has been followed, permission from the on-call dean or director is needed to perform the legal process of search and seizure. That protocol starts with public safety being notified of a possible problem, usually from a fellow student and follows with their subsequent reaction to the situation. Once at the residence in question, officers knock on the door and request consent to enter the room if the student answers the door.

“In almost all of these [cases] we’re responding to a student complaint,” Sabattis said. “Once we receive a complaint, like any police department in the country, you’re obligated to take due diligence, reasonable action to go investigate the complaint.”

If a student does not answer the door or denies access to the officer, a faculty member at the dean or director level of the Office of Student Life is called upon to make a decision on a course of action.

“When we’re operating in the realm of criminal activity, we go to a neutral and detached judge,” Sabattis said. “When we’re operating in the realm of college policy issues or a student safety issue, we go to a neutral and detached college official for an independent judgment.”

Other colleges such as Lehigh University rely more on warrant-based searches, though they do have the option to go through the dean, according to Lehigh Chief of Police Edward Shupp.

Conversely, Muhlenberg College gives authorized personnel from the offices of the Dean of Students, Residential Services, Plant Operations and Campus Safety the “right to enter any room at any time” for purpose such as inspection, maintenance, social code violations, as well as health and security hazards, according to the school’s housing regulations for the 2014-15 school year.

Lafayette’s policy, which is modeled after the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group’s model code of conduct, Dean of Students Paul McLoughlin II said, is one that those who enforce it support.

“It’s a model that I’m very comfortable with,” Sabattis said. “It’s a very healthy system that our Constitution calls for that our internal process is modeled on.”

Some students, however, disagree.

“If it’s an emergency, I want someone to be there,” Bowden Sauders ’17 said. “But in other situations, I think they should have a search warrant. If they’re acting as police they should follow the same protocol as police.”

The policy Lafayette employs to decide when to enter a student’s room reflects a compromise between what students are entitled to and what is necessary to protect the collective group of Lafayette students.

“We’re trying to balance a student’s right to privacy with the safety and security of all students,” McLoughlin said. “It’s an individual’s rights versus a community’s.”