Hypothetical: Crazy Larry lives in Bates Residence Hall at the University of South Carolina in Lancaster.  He is 19 years old and has lived in that single room for two years.  On one particular night, the residence hall adviser, Norman, is walking by Larry’s room and catches a whiff of a strong odor that he believes to be marijuana.  Pursuant to university regulations, Norman knocked on the door and then used his master key to enter Crazy Larry’s room.  Upon entering the room, Norman left the door wide open and observed Johnny smoking away at a marijuana cigarette.

Campus Policeman Wiggum happened to be walking down the hall to respond to a noise complaint a few seconds after Norman opened Larry’s door. As he passed the dorm room, he is hit with a whiff of marijuana while also observing smoke pouring out of the room.  He enters the room, and observes Larry with the “joint” in his hand.  Norman tells the officer that he was getting ready to call the police at that moment.

While taking Larry into custody, Officer Wiggum notices a laptop computer, which is closed, sitting on Larry’s desk.  The officer can see that the laptop has a label on it that says “property of Ashton Acres.”  Officer Wiggum remembers reading a report at the police station the day before in which Ashton Acres had reported her laptop as being stolen.  Officer Wiggum then seizes the laptop as well as the joint and arrests Larry.

  1. Was the original entry by Norman, the resident adviser, lawful?

Yes, the entry by Norman was most likely lawful.  The issue is whether a university residence advisor can enter into a dormitory room without a warrant.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and seizures by government agents.  This usually means that searches by government agents must be pursuant to a warrant based on probable cause to believe that seizable evidence can be found at the place searched.  Before reaching the meat of the Fourth Amendment claim, we must first decide whether there was a search by a government agent.

A search will be found only when a government agent intrudes into an area in which the complainant has a reasonable expectation of privacy.  The US Supreme Court has held that the owner of a home has a protectable privacy interest, and so does an overnight guest in a home.  Surely a student living in a dorm room would have no less expectation of privacy.  Thus Larry will probably be found to have a protectable privacy interest in a dorm room.

A court would also likely find that Norman, the RA, is a government agent because he works for a public university, which is part of the government.  Further, his goal here was to investigate the smell coming from Crazy Larry’s room that he thought was marijuana.  While smoking marijuana might violate school rules, it is also a criminal offense.  Thus, Norman was a government agent investigating possible criminal conduct.  As such, he probably needed a warrant to enter the room.

Norman had no warrant, and no exception to the warrant requirement would seem to apply here.  Perhaps the closest is the exception for the exercise of the police community caretaker function which allows police to enter onto premises without a warrant when they believe that someone is in physical danger.  However, there was no reason for Norman to believe that Larry was in physical danger merely because he smelled marijuana.

The only other possible exception is consent.  A warrant is not needed when there is valid consent.  Consent must be knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.  Whether consent is voluntary when it is a condition to getting a dorm room is questionable.  In any case, we do not have facts to support this argument.  Therefore, absent more facts, we must assume that the warrantless entry was a violation of Larry’s Fourth Amendment Rights.

  1. Was the seizure of the marijuana cigarette by Officer Wiggum lawful?

No, the seizure by the officer was unlawful.

As discussed above, generally, a warrant is required to enter a private room unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies.  The state will probably argue that Officer Wiggum could enter the room because he had probable cause based on the smell in the hall and the smoke pouring out of the room, or because he had consent to enter based on the door being open.  However, there is no exception to the warrant requirement merely because the police have probable cause to believe that criminal activity is being conducted on the premises.  Moreover, while it might be argued that having the door open was an invitation to enter, here the door was open only because the RA had opened it (unlawfully).  The police would not be allowed to take advantage of another government agent’s unlawful activity.  Under the exclusionary rule, evidence derived from an unlawful search must be suppressed.

  1. Was the seizure of the laptop lawful?

No, the seizure of the laptop was unlawful.

The seizure of the laptop was unlawful.  Again, the question turns on the lawfulness of the entry.  If Officer Wiggum had been in the room lawfully, the plain view exception would apply.  When an officer is in a place in which he is privileged to be, and he inadvertently discovers evidence in plain view, he may seize the evidence.  Here, Officer Wiggum was not legitimately in the room.  If he had been, the other requirements for the plain view exception would apply.  During the arrest of Larry, the officer observed the laptop on the desk.  It had a label attached to it that read: “property of Ashton Acres,” and the officer had earlier viewed a police report that informed him that Ashton Acres had reported her laptop stolen.  Given this prior knowledge regarding the theft of Acre’s laptop, the officer immediately suspected that the laptop that sat on Johnny’s desk was evidence of a crime.  As a result, had he legitimately been in the room, he would have been justified in seizing the laptop as evidence of a crime.

It is easy to see that if a crime has been committed, there are various ways to navigate through the legal system.  Here, after the initial entry, Larry was able to get off the hook for most of the charges.  It is so important that when an officer is exercising a search, he is doing so in accordance with the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.  If you or a loved one has been involved in a search of your home or automobile by a government agent, call the law offices of Reeves, Aiken & Hightower, LLP for a consultation.  You can reach our Baxter Village office located in Fort Mill, South Carolina at 803-548-4444, or toll-free at 877-374-5999.  Don’t stand idly by as your rights are abused.  Ensure that you and your house is protected from government intrusion.