Rewrite the rules for university patrols

State universities have long struggled to downplay their gallivanting, binge-drinking reputations. On June 26, the state Court of Appeals rightly ruled that they had gone too far. Police officers can no longer randomly patrol dormitory halls in public universities.

The ruling was in a case from Washington State University in Pullman, where a police officer moseyed down hallways, listening and sniffing at doors. These patrols resulted in several tainted criminal cases and violated students’ constitutional rights — imagine running into officers while cooking popcorn in a bathrobe.

The court’s ruling adds a healthy dose of the Fourth Amendment to the thin, shaky line between university safeguards and student privacy. Administrators, police and student leadership work hard to ensure safe campuses; they’ve just gone about it the wrong way.

Each of Washington’s public universities currently conduct some sort of dorm patrols and will have to re-examine those polices. They should be careful to avoid the pitfalls that landed WSU in court. After a temporary court ban in 2006, the WSU Board of Regents simply rewrote the rules to re-legalize the patrols, a move supported by administrators. Claims that safety is the primary reason for patrols are overshadowed by patterns of random knocking and illegal ruses that exist only to seek out potential crimes.

Dorms are students’ homes, plain and simple. Students should be able to study, shower and do laundry without a police presence. Residents tend to be freshmen and an open-door environment is important to their transition to college. They, and their parents, certainly pay enough for that living space.

Without random police patrols, universities will have to seek more constructive ways to make sure the facts of college life coincide with the rule of law. A middle ground could simply require officers to have a resident escort, adviser invitation or search warrant before entering the buildings, the policy WSU followed before it smudged the law post facto.

Many dorm building and floor entrances are locked to protect students’ privacy and safety. If special exceptions are made for police, those exceptions have to be clear, specific and lawful. It’s more than a little ironic that universities teach students about the Constitution while their police officers paw into students’ private lives.

The court’s interpretation of Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights is on target, and universities should move quickly to implement it.

Now, if only there was a constitutional mechanism to make cafeteria food appetizing …

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