Does a college student have a right to privacy on campus?

Going to college is an exciting transition in young people’s lives. For many of them, it is the first time they have lived away from home. The typical dorm rooms are small and cramped, and the RA is just down the hall, but it gives the students who live in them their first taste of adult life.

If you have a child at the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga or anywhere else, you may wonder what rights your child has concerning the police — especially if cops recently arrested your son or daughter. After all, a dormitory is not quite the same thing as an apartment building, though it is the student’s residence during the school year. So, do the police have the right to search your child’s room without getting a warrant first?

The Fourth Amendment and college dorms

Thanks to the Fourth Amendment, Americans enjoy protections against warrantless police searches of their homes and property. But this right is not absolute. There are numerous exceptions, such as the “plain view” exception where an officer can enter and search a home when there is evidence of a crime (such as drugs) in plain view from the outside, such as through an open window. Another exception is when the resident consents to the search.

In one of the few cases that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on the subject of the warrant requirement and college dorm rooms, the Court found that a police officer was within his rights to seize drugs he found in the student’s dorm. After arresting the student on unrelated charges, the officer followed the student into the room to collect his identification. The Court ruled that the officer was legally inside the room when he observed the drugs in plain view, so the student’s Fourth Amendment rights had not been violated.

Standing up for a student’s privacy rights

Still, courts mostly have acknowledged that college students have strong Fourth Amendment protections in their dorm rooms. If the police arrested your child after searching his or her dorm room, it is possible that the officer violated your child’s rights. This would be a critical point that could dramatically alter the outcome of the case.  Therefore, it is important that you speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney if you child has been arrested and his or her room searched.

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