In the United States, private colleges often have campus police, who are employed by the school but are sworn law enforcement officers with full police power in a certain jurisdiction (which can easily extend beyond the campus). Colleges also have living areas for students, which are the home of the student while they're at school (if anywhere has a reasonable expectation of privacy, it seems like a dorm room would), although these are typically not leases.

Now: From what I can tell, US law says that if you have a reasonable expectation of privacy on some property, the owner of that property can't just give police permission to search it, nor can police ask the owner to search it. For instance, a hotel manager can't consent to search of a hotel room while the occupant is paying to rent the room. However, without a lease, the property owner can enter and search if they got the idea to do that.

In a university context, this seems to imply that a school administrator could search a dorm room for evidence of violation of school rules, but that city police would need a warrant or consent from the student. What's the rule for university police? Do they wear a "school employee" hat, which lets them search school property with permission from the school? Or do they wear a "police officer" hat, which (presumably) requires them to have a warrant? Or does it depend what they're looking for (so looking for drugs might need a warrant, while looking for space heaters might not)?

  • The university almost certainly has policies that address this, and they presume that, by applying to live on campus, the student consents to those policies. Whether those policies are legal, or have been tested in court, may be a different question. Oct 4, 2015 at 5:42
  • @nate Actually, that's not necessarily true (I just checked my own school, and can't find something on the issue). And regardless, I'm quite sure you couldn't pre-consent to searches by city police, so it still matters which one campus police count as.
    – cpast
    Oct 4, 2015 at 6:46

1 Answer 1


I did not perform a complete survey but The Jurisdictional Limits of Campus Police reports that, "subject to jurisdictional constraints, campus police officers had virtually the same powers as their municipal counterparts." (Internal quotes omitted.) Generally speaking, police are police not administration.

Here are some statutes:


HIGHER EDUCATION (110 ILCS 1020/) Private College Campus Police Act.
The Board of Trustees of a private college or private university, may appoint persons to be members of a campus police department.... Members of the campus police department shall have the powers of municipal peace officers and county sheriffs.


General Laws PART I TITLE II CHAPTER 22C Section 63.
The colonel may... at the request of an officer of a college, university, other educational institution... appoint employees of such college, university, other educational institution or hospital as special state police officers. Such special state police officers shall... have the same power to make arrests as regular police officers for any criminal offense committed in or upon lands or structures owned, used or occupied by such college, university, or other institution or hospital.


...certified campus police officer shall have the authority to enforce... State criminal statutes. Campus police departments formed by private institutions of higher education pursuant to this act shall be deemed to be public agencies in the State of Oklahoma

Here is a case:

People v. Boettner, 362 N.Y.S.2d 365 (N.Y.Sup., 1974) is a case where school officials at a private school tried to get the cops to come execute a search. While the cops were dragging their feet obtaining a warrant, the school officials did their own search, found marijuana which they turned over to the police. Suspect was arrested and convicted. When the cops can't go into the room, send in the administration. Sort of.

present search and seizure was conducted by college officials in a private capacity without government knowledge or participation and concludes that as such it is not subject to fourth amendment constraints. While it is true that a student does not lose his constitutional rights at the school house door or at the entrance to the college campus neither does he become cloaked with greater protection than any non-student who is the subject of a seizure of evidence by a private citizen.

BUT the judge makes sure we understand that "State Police had no knowledge of and did not participate, directly or indirectly, in the search conducted by RIT officials on the 15th." So "it cannot be said that the RIT officials who decided on their own to search defendants' rooms were acting as agents, either actual or implied, of law enforcement.... Nor can it be said that the present search was only one incident in a close and continuing relationship between RIT and local law enforcement officers.... In the final analysis, RIT acted on its own, for its own reasons, and to further its own purposes."

Regarding a written policy:

The fact that the rules of the college regarding room searches were not complied with is of no consequence in determining the admissibility of the evidence for purposes of a criminal proceeding.

Public schools are an entirely different animal. In those cases the university staff are public employees and their searches can be fourth amendment violations but they ARE allowed to conduct searches subject to the "reasonable exercise of University supervisory duties."

"Even though the special relationship that existed between these petitioners and Troy University officials conferred upon the University officials the right to enter and search petitioners' dormitory rooms, that right cannot be expanded and used for purposes other than those pertaining to the special relationship."
Piazzola v. Watkins, 316 F.Supp. 624 (M.D. Ala., 1970)
Moore v. Student Affairs Committee of Troy State Univ., 284 F.Supp. 725 (M.D. Ala., 1968)

  • So if I understand this correctly: Campus police are police. Other university employees can act as landlords, who apparently have a right to search their tenancies with impunity? And a private citizen can present evidence of criminal behavior to a court that might not be excluded?
    – feetwet
    Oct 5, 2015 at 20:03
  • 2
    Yes, cops are cops. The school can search as part of the reasonable administrative function of running a school. The last part is fairly well developed law that a private citizen cannot violate the 4th amendment. Unless. Unless they are an agent of the police - which has also been defined and the Piazolla case summarizes well. That citizen actor applies to other situations as well.
    – jqning
    Oct 5, 2015 at 20:53

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