Washington State University is revising its housing contracts and policies in an effort to allow its police officers to resume patrolling dormitories.
The patrols were stopped after a Whitman County judge ruled in two cases this spring that, in essence, dormitory hallways were part of the students’ private residences, and police needed warrants to search there.
Two criminal cases – one for drug possession and one for theft – were dismissed, with the judge ruling that the WSU police officer had violated the constitutional privacy rights of students by patrolling the halls, eavesdropping and sniffing at dorm doors.
Housing contracts students signed this fall specifically allow WSU employees such as police officers to have access to dorm hallways, but police patrols won’t resume until the university formally changes its administrative rules, officials said. Such a change would require approval from the Board of Regents, and officials hope patrols can resume in January.
“This really has us concerned,” said Al Jamison, interim vice president for student affairs. “Our primary concern in these residence halls is always the safety and security of our students.”
WSU policy allows only residents and their guests in the residence halls. But housing contracts signed this fall expand that to include university employees in the performance of their duties, said Bob Tattershall, director of housing. That step was taken in anticipation of a formal change in university policy.
University officials have argued that parents and students have high expectations for public safety and that police walk-throughs are a valuable way to ensure safety and form positive relationships between officers and students.
“Over the years, parents, administrators and even students have come to expect a greater degree of safety from us,” Tattershall said.
Routine patrols of dorms have been common at other institutions in the region, such as the University of Washington, where nightly patrols are scheduled, and Eastern Washington University, where unscheduled patrols are conducted. The legal community has watched the WSU cases – one of which is under appeal – with interest, to see how the conflict between privacy rights and public safety is resolved.
Tim Esser, attorney for one of the students whose case was dismissed, said Thursday that the issue is a question of constitutional rights, not university policy. Esser said that Washington case law has established that dormitory hallways are not unlike hallways in a private home – police cannot patrol them without a warrant.
He said even if students consent to patrols by signing a contract, that doesn’t meet the legal requirements for waiving the requirement for a search warrant. He said the state Supreme Court has ruled that such waivers must be specific to circumstances, not a general, blanket waiver.
“WSU thinks that, somehow, it can excuse itself from compliance with the Constitution,” Esser said.
Jamison said the rulings in the two WSU cases cited the university’s policy, and that school officials believe changing the policy will address the problems cited by the judge.
“We would agree that students in their rooms have a constitutional right to privacy,” he said. “There’s no question about that. The question has to do with the common areas.”
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