It was an issue of first impression for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA): whether a college dorm room is an exception to the guarantee of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures.
This issue was resolved by the TCCA on June 7, 2017 in the case of Mikenzie Renee Rodriquez.
Rodriquez is a student at the Howard Payne University located in Brentwood, Texas. As a freshman, she shared a dorm room on campus with fellow freshman Adrienne Sanchez.
Room Inspections Allowed by Student Handbook
The university’s Handbook contains a section called “Room Inspections.” This is a “housing agreement” between university and student which authorizes “resident assistants” (RAs) to conduct “routine inspections” of dorm rooms without notice. This practice permits RAs to check “for items that residents [are] not supposed to have such as candies, microwave ovens, and more obviously prohibited items such as drugs or alcohol.
The RAs do not have to have “reasonable suspicion” that contraband items are in a particular room in order to search. They can enter a room at will and not only inspect the physical areas of the room but the personal belongings of the students as well.
RAs Miriam Mackey and Catherine Mullaney performed a “normal room check” on a room shared by Rodriquez and Sanchez. Neither resident was present in the room when the inspection was conducted.
Dorm Room Drug Paraphernalia
The RAs found marijuana in the “first trunk they looked through.” They immediately reported their discovery to resident director, Nancy Pryor, who instructed the RAs to conduct “a more thorough search.” The TCCA pointed out this second search discovered “a matchbox containing what they believed to be ecstasy pills in the bottom of a basket full of fingernail polish and a pipe inside a sock that had tape wrapped around it.”
The RAs laid the items on the floor and took cell phone pictures of them.
The resident director contacted university police.
Warrantless Search by Police
Officer Robert Pacatte responded to the report. Although in plain clothes, Pacatte had his badge with him. He entered the dorm room where the contraband had been found. Pacatte would later tell the trial court that he did not have a warrant, acknowledging that it “would have been easy enough” to obtain one. The officer admitted there were no “exigent circumstances” and that he did not ask for consent before entering the room and taking photographs of the contraband.
Pacatte notified the Brownwood Police Department which sent Detective Joe Aaron Tayler to investigate.
In the meantime, Adrienne Sanchez returned to the room. She found Pacatte, the two RAs and the resident director in the room. They instructed her to wait in the hall, but permitted her to enter the room to change clothes. Pacatte searched her clothes and did not ask her consent to search the room.
The group allowed Sanchez to go eat, and when she returned, she had her coach with her. This time she found Detective Taylor in the room with the others. He did not ask her for consent to search the room. She informed the detective that the contraband items belonged to Rodriquez.
Rodriquez then arrived at the room, and after being read her rights, she admitted the contraband belonged to her. She also told the detective the pills were Ecstasy.
Contraband Not in Plain View
Detective Taylor would later tell the trial court that the contraband items were not in “plain view” in the traditional sense “because a civilian had moved the items from their original place.” He also conceded to the court that there was no danger of the items being destroyed and it would not have been difficult to obtain a warrant.
In challenging the seized items as the fruits of an unlawful search, Rodriquez’s attorney did not contest the search conducted by the RAs, effectively conceding it was lawful under the “private search” doctrine. Defense counsel’s challenge instead focused squarely on the premise that once “the police became involved,” the search became a “prosecutorial search” that triggered Fourth Amendment protections.
The State countered this challenge with two arguments. First, it said “this is a classic situation where someone who is not a state actor found drugs, notified law enforcement, and when law enforcement got there, it’s obvious and plain the minute they are on the scene what it is.” Second, assuming there was a search, the State reasoned that “Ms. Pryor, as an official at the university, would have had apparent authority to invite the officer in.”
Motion to Suppress Granted
The trial court was not persuaded by the State’s argument. It granted the defense motion to suppress, finding that the warrantless search of Rodriquez’s room “without the existence of an applicable exception, violated the Fourth Amendment.”
The State appealed to the Eleventh Court of Appeals in Brown County. This time the State confined its argument to the narrow proposition that under the private search doctrine, Pacatte and Taylor’s entry into the dorm room “did not constitute a search.” Further, the State reasoned that once the officers entered the room, Rodriquez “no longer possessed a subjective expectation of privacy that society should be willing to recognize as reasonable.”
Dorm Room is a Home
The appeals court was not impressed with this argument, either. The court gave the State three reasons why its argument failed. First, the physical entry into a home is a search; second, the dorm room was Rodriquez’s home; and, finally, the officers’ entry into the dorm room constituted a search.
University Personal Did Not Have Authority to Give Consent
The appeals court made one compelling observation that carried the day: while university personnel had the authority to enter the dorm room, they did not “have the authority to give police officers consent to enter [Rodriquez’s] dorm room.”
Dorm Rooms Enjoy Reasonable Expectation of Privacy
At the end of the day, the TCCA found that a university dorm room is “analogous to an apartment or a hotel room,” which enjoys a “reasonable expectation of freedom from governmental intrusion.”
The message to campus police is clear: either get lawful consent from the dorm room dweller to search or develop probable cause to secure a warrant from a magistrate.
The message to university officials is equally clear: You own the university and you can enter a student’s dorm room at will, but you do not have the legal authority to override a student’s constitutionally protected expectation of privacy in his or her room and their freedom to be protected from unlawful governmental intrusion.