Washington State University will resume police patrols of the dormitory hallways after the Board of Regents voted Monday to adopt a temporary emergency rule reinstating the practice.
The patrols were halted after a Whitman County judge ruled in the spring that a WSU police officer had unconstitutionally invaded students’ privacy by randomly walking the hallways, listening and sniffing at doorways. The judge ruled that hallways – which were limited under WSU policy to residents and guests – were areas where students had a right to privacy, and he threw out two criminal cases resulting from the patrols.
WSU officials said that since the rulings and the elimination of patrols, there has been confusion among dorm residents and resident advisers about when police can enter. Al Jamison, interim vice president of student affairs, told the regents Monday that he’d heard from a resident adviser who was uncertain what to do when she was shoved by a threatening guest in the dorms. Others say that some students took the absence of patrols as a sign to smoke marijuana freely and that parties and noise problems are up.
“There was definitely a feeling of, does this mean there’s almost more permission to break the law?” said Zach Wurtz, president of the student body.
WSU officials have been working to reinstate the patrols. They began changing the state administrative code governing access to dorms, but that rule-making process won’t be complete and ready for a vote of the Board of Regents until November.
So the regents passed the emergency 120-day ordinance Monday so patrols could resume in the interim. The rule clarifies that in addition to residents and their guests, WSU employees such as police officers and others doing their jobs are allowed in dorm hallways.
“We feel the safety and security of our students is being jeopardized,” Jamison said.
Jamison and other WSU officials said that the random patrols have been a longstanding practice at the school, and noted they are common at other universities in the region. The University of Washington has regular patrols in the dorms. At Eastern Washington University and the University of Idaho, campus officers conduct random patrols in hallways.
At issue in the court cases was whether dormitory hallways are public or private spaces. Attorneys for two defendants – one accused of drug possession, the other of theft – argued that the hallways were places where students had an expectation of privacy. The hallways are locked at night and have common areas such as bathrooms and TV rooms.
They argued that the recent cases resulted from the actions of one overzealous officer who joined the force last year. In the cases that were dismissed, the officer, Matthew Kuhrt, listened at the door in one instance and smelled at the door in the other.
One of the attorneys, Tim Esser, has said that the issues of privacy involved in the hallway patrols are constitutional questions and can’t be resolved by the university simply changing its policies.
But regents and WSU officials said Monday morning that the judge’s ruling that students had an expectation of privacy in hallways was based, in part, on the WSU policy.
“The expectation of privacy is based on our rule,” said Antoinette Ursich, WSU’s legal counsel through the attorney general’s office.
The rule doesn’t change the status of dorm rooms, which are considered private.
WSU President V. Lane Rawlins said he understands students’ feelings about dorm privacy to a degree because the president’s house is often the scene of public events. But he said that student safety is the top priority and that police and other emergency officials need access to the dorms.
“The safety of our students has to be primary in this,” he said.
Wurtz, the student body president, lived in the dorms for three years and was a resident adviser for one. He noted that the student Senate passed a resolution last week in support of the temporary rule change – but he also said he’d heard from students who viewed random patrols as an invasion of privacy.
For that reason, he said, student leaders are withholding judgment on making the change permanent until after public hearings.
“From the perspective of the students, it’s highly important to make sure privacy and security are balanced, and that’s a difficult balance to maintain,” he said.