Students will return to the dorms at Washington State University in a couple of weeks, but the police won’t – at least not without a warrant or an invitation.
Campus officers no longer will make routine patrols of dorm hallways, after two cases in the spring in which criminal charges were dismissed after a judge ruled, in essence, that dorm hallways are like the hallways in your home – police can’t just walk through them looking, listening and sniffing for crimes.
“If you don’t mind the police peeking in your window, going in the back yard and peeking around, then you probably won’t mind” what WSU officers did in these cases, said Steve Martonick, a Pullman attorney who represented a student in one of the cases. “Apparently it was officer (Matthew) Kuhrt’s practice just to go up and down the hallways sniffing for marijuana.”
But university officials around the region say that hallway patrols improve safety and help establish positive relationships between students and officers.
Prosecutors have appealed the decision in one case, and law enforcement officials and others say it remains arguable whether universities must treat dorm hallways as private or public spaces. Police officers at the University of Washington conduct scheduled nightly patrols through dorm hallways, and officers at Eastern Washington University and the University of Idaho do so on an occasional basis.
But WSU has stopped the practice, pending the result of an appeal and legal and procedural inquiries by the attorney general and university officials, said Police Chief Steve Hansen.
“I think the parents would want us back in there,” Hansen said. “Even talking to the student body, they would like us to have the ability to be in there.”
David Brody, an associate professor and director of the criminal justice program at WSU-Spokane, said federal courts have tended to define dorm hallways as public spaces, but that some case law in Washington leans toward defining them as private.
“There’s definitely room for debate,” Brody said. “Judge (David) Frazier’s ruling came as a surprise to some people, and it’s a pretty gray area of the law.”
Both cases involve the actions of Kuhrt, a new hire at the campus department last year along with three others. Hansen said the addition of officers and a more “proactive” approach led to more hall patrols. He said that helps officers ensure student safety and creates bonds between students and officers that pay off over time.
WSU policy in the dorms prohibits public entry by anyone but residents and their guests. Dorm floors are locked at night, with entry by key card, and contain shared facilities like bathrooms and TV rooms. Those are some of the reasons defense attorneys argued that the hallways were private areas – with students walking from their room to a bathroom wrapped in a towel, for example.
“The hallway in a WSU dormitory is just like the hallway in your house that connects your bedroom to your bathroom,” said Tim Esser, who defended a student accused of burglary.
Defense attorneys described Kuhrt as an overzealous officer sniffing and listening at doorways. In the felony burglary case, Kuhrt roamed the hallways of a dorm and listened at a door while investigating a burglary, overhearing two men having a suspicious conversation. In the drug possession case, Kuhrt was walking the halls when he smelled burning marijuana, and he sniffed at the door jamb to confirm his suspicion, court records say.
“It’s only within the last year that this rookie officer takes it upon himself to do foot patrols uninvited,” Esser said.
Kuhrt did not return a message seeking comment. But Hansen said Kuhrt was not acting on his own, and that his department policy – and the wishes of university housing officials – was to have officers checking out the hallways in the dorms.
“He was doing what the department wanted to do,” Hansen said. “He was being very proactive.”
Byron Bedirian, who prosecuted the case for Whitman County, did not return a message seeking comment Friday. But in court documents he argued that the officer’s entry into the hallways is consistent with WSU’s duty to provide a safe, educational environment to its students, and that students do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in hallways that can be accessed by hundreds of other students.
Officers on other regional campuses say they patrol hallways routinely.
Michael Griffel, director of university residences for the University of Idaho, said the school wants to have officers be a part of the dorm communities – which includes walking the halls, getting to know students and forming relationships, as well as enforcing the laws.
“Part of what we’re trying to teach is civic responsibility and good citizenship,” he said. “The police are part of our community. We all pay taxes and use them as a positive force.”
Ray Wittmier, assistant chief of the UW department, said he has two officers who patrol dorm hallways every night and doesn’t plan to change. “From 6 at night to 4 in the morning, they wander the hallways there,” he said.
At EWU, Chief Tim Walters said that there are no such regular patrols. However, the kinds of occasional patrols that WSU was practicing are common at Eastern, he said.
“That’s what we do every day,” he said.
Walters said that universities around the state are watching the WSU case closely.
Brody, the criminal justice professor, said that the question of where to draw the line on privacy is difficult with dorms. He said that historically, courts have treated them similarly to motels – though it’s not an exact analogy.
“You have a privacy right in a hotel room, but not necessarily in the hallway leading to your room,” he said.
But Esser argued that a dorm hall is more analogous to a private residence. The university calls the floors “houses” and groups students together in an effort to form communities, he said. Entry is prohibited to the public, and the residents are in a unisex environment with shared bathrooms, TV rooms and other facilities.
“There’s a significant difference between a hallway in a WSU dormitory and a hallway in a motel,” he said.
Esser said the prohibition on hallway patrols won’t hamper WSU police from doing their jobs.
“The sky is not falling,” he said. “There’s nothing to prevent people from reporting crimes and asking the police to respond.”
In any case, the issues surrounding university dorms are unique: Some students are minors and the relationship among the school, campus police and students is unlike any other.
“The police and the university are in a tough position,” Brody said. “Students do have privacy rights, but the university has duties that butt up against those rights. It’ll be interesting to see what the Court of Appeals does with the case.”