Warrantless Searches of Dorm Rooms Do Not Violate Fourth Amendment

738 F.3d 867 (7th Cir. 2013)

"A Frivolous Case on a Serious Issue"

By Robert C. Cloud

Professor of Higher Education, Baylor University

Introduction

Medlock v. Trustees of Indiana University (IU), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that graduate student dorm inspectors acted reasonably and did not violate Zachary Medlock’s constitutional rights when they found marijuana and a large marijuana plant during a routine and scheduled inspection of his dormitory room. The inspectors reported their findings to campus police, and Medlock was arrested and subsequently suspended from the university for one year. After considering the facts in the case, the Seventh Circuit concluded that “reasonableness is a touchstone of the Fourth Amendment, “(p. 873) and, consequently, that a warrant is not required when university employees (i.e., state actors) conduct routine health and safety room inspections that are mandated in university housing contracts.

Most of the Fourth Amendment actions filed by students against colleges and universities to date have ensued after illegal drugs and/or other contraband were discovered during warrantless searches of dormitory rooms. See for example, State of Washington v. Chrisman, 455 U.S.1 (1982) and Commonwealth v. Carr, 936 N.E.2d 883 (Mass. 2010). The court’s decision in Medlock turned out well for Indiana University (IU) because university officials acted openly, reasonably, and leniently in dealing with Mr. Medlock.

Medlock v. Trustees of Indiana University: Openness, Reasonableness, and Lenience (Lenity)

Zachary Medlock lived in a campus dormitory room at IU during the spring semester 2011. As a condition of living in campus housing, Medlock signed a contract allowing university employees to inspect his room periodically for health and safety purposes. He also agreed to abide by a code of conduct for dormitory residents that prohibited a long list of items in dorm rooms including illegal drugs, of course.

Medlock received one week’s notice that his room would be inspected and was reminded again over the dorm’s intercom early on the day that the room was checked. At approximately 4:00 p.m., a student inspector entered Medlock’s room and immediately saw a clear plastic tube lying on a desk in plain view. The tube contained a substance that the inspector suspected was marijuana. When a second inspector concurred, campus police were summoned. Within a few minutes, Christopher King, an IU police officer, arrived at the dorm room, inspected the tube’s contents, confirmed the presence of raw marijuana, and left the dorm taking the tube and marijuana with him. In the meantime, the student inspectors continued their scheduled room inspection and found a blanket at the bottom of the bathroom door which they surmised was “intended to keep smoke from wafting into the bathroom (which Medlock shared with another student) while he smoked marijuana in his bedroom” (p. 870). The closet door was ajar, and one of the inspectors noticed a suspicious-looking plant in the closet. Officer King was summoned again “and found himself face to face with a six-foot-high marijuana plant” (p. 870). After posting a fellow police officer in the room to secure the premises and its contents, King left to get a warrant to search Medlock’s room for drugs and drug paraphernalia. Armed with the warrant, police found six pipes typically used to smoke marijuana, a fluorescent light (or grow light) that enabled the marijuana plant to thrive in the closet, and 89 grams of raw marijuana (p. 870).

IU police arrested Medlock for felony possession of marijuana, and the Dean of Students suspended him from the University for one year in accordance with policy and practice. Seventeen days later, an administrative hearing panel affirmed the suspension, and the university provost also affirmed. Although the seized items from Medlock’s room provided compelling evidence of serious violations of the university’s code of conduct and the Indiana state criminal code, the criminal charges against him were dropped for unexplained reasons. So in the end, Medlock’s suspension was based more on failure to honor the terms of his housing contract with the university than it was on criminal possession of an illegal substance.

At the end of his one year suspension, Medlock applied for readmission to IU. University officials readmitted Medlock and even gave him a part-time job on IU’s information technology staff, a decision the court described as “odd” since it could have given him access to the confidential record of his expulsion (p. 870). Notwithstanding the university’s decision to readmit him and offer the job, Medlock sued IU and several IU employees, claiming a violation of his constitutional rights and arguing that he was entitled to a hearing before he was suspended (i.e., a predeprivation hearing) and that the hearing he received 17 days after his suspension did not constitute adequate due process. He also claimed that IU staff violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches when they inspected his room without a warrant. The federal district court granted summary judgment for all defendants on all charges, and Medlock appealed.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Rules for IU

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s decision. Circuit Judge Posner concluded that “there is no merit to [Medlock’s] due process claim. The in-your-face flagrance of Medlock’s violation of university rules and of Indiana’s criminal law required the university to take immediate remedial action, if its commitment to its rules and to legality was not to be questioned” (p. 871). See Osteen v. Henley, 13 F.3d 221, 225-26 (7th Cir. 1993).

Judge Posner then addressed Medlock’s other constitutional claim—that the warrantless search of his room violated the Fourth Amendment and that the evidence seized should have been excluded at the suspension hearing because it had been obtained without a warrant. In response, Judge Posner pointed out that the exclusionary rule applies only to criminal proceedings, not university disciplinary hearings. Therefore, IU could present any part or all of the evidence from the room search at the hearing. While ruling that Medlock’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated, Posner stated that Medlock had consented to have his room inspected periodically for contraband and health and safety code violations in his housing contract with the university. In doing so, Medlock knowingly “chose to trade some privacy” for the convenience of living in the campus dormitory (p. 872).

Furthermore, Judge Posner emphasized that the two graduate students who inspected Medlock’s room were not acting as agents of the police. They were carrying out a lawful regulatory inspection to ensure that dorm residents were not violating the terms of their housing contracts by keeping pets, burning candles, etc. The inspection was a scheduled event; Medlock had prior notice that it would occur on a specific date; and a warrant was not required. Search warrants are not required, Posner wrote, when government actors are addressing “special needs” beyond the normal needs of law enforcement. Special needs can make the probable cause and warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment impracticable in schools and colleges. For example, requiring a search warrant in educational settings can “unduly interfere with the maintenance of swift and informal disciplinary procedures needed [in such settings]” to protect the safety of students and staff. (p. 872).

On the other hand, Judge Posner acknowledged that Officer King was indeed engaged in a criminal investigation, and Medlock had not consented to King’s warrantless search. That fact notwithstanding, the student inspectors had already found the marijuana during the routine room inspection before King arrived at the room; and “the intrusion on Medlock’s privacy was complete before King entered” (p. 873). Consequently, the judge concluded that King’s intrusion on Medlock’s privacy was minimal at most.

In closing his opinion in Medlock, Posner described the case as “near frivolous” and the decision to sue the two student inspectors as “offensive” (p. 873). Acknowledging his incredulity after reviewing the facts, the Judge closed the opinion thusly, “…the most surprising feature of the entire episode is the exceptional lenity with which a state university (in a state that does not allow medicinal, let alone recreational, use of marijuana) treated a brazen violator of its rules of conduct and of the criminal law” (p. 873-74).

Conclusion

Judge Posner’s opinion in Medlock v. Trustees of Indiana University makes it clear that dormitory workers do not need a warrant to inspect a student’s room for health and safety violations. Like other dormitory residents at IU, Medlock had consented to periodic inspections of his room as a condition of living in the dormitory, but the Judge’s decision was not based solely on Medlock’s housing contract with IU. Dorm-room inspections by university employees are standard procedures on virtually all university campuses, and they are intended to ensure compliance with the institutions’ health and safety rules, not to violate the constitutional rights of occupants. Therefore, no warrant is required for such routine inspections.

The Seventh Circuit rejected Medlock’s claims that he was entitled to a hearing before he was suspended and that the hearing he received after the suspension did not constitute adequate due process. Judge Posner was not persuaded that the university’s student disciplinary process needed a pre-suspension hearing requirement. The Seventh Circuit’s decision in Medlock supported existing IU policies and procedures.

In addition to Medlock’s legal significance, the decision is also noteworthy because it reflects the evolving views about drug abuse on postsecondary campuses. In earlier times, public universities were intolerant of drug use and abuse on their campuses, and violators were routinely expelled and indicted for felonious behaviors. Indiana University, on the other hand, responded to Zachary Medlock’s disobedience and criminal activities with lenity and generosity. Felony charges against Medlock were dropped, although there was little doubt of his guilt. In addition, IU permitted Medlock to re-enroll after he had served his one-year suspension and offered him a part-time job to help with educational expenses.

In the end, there appeared to be no losers in the Medlock case. Zachary Medlock got off lightly for deliberate violation of university policies and a serious drug offense and, in spite of his actions, was readmitted to the university and allowed to continue his studies. And finally, IU’s policies and procedures on health and safety inspections were upheld by the Seventh Circuit.