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Today I have an interesting question involving Police, Fire and university administration.

A little bit of background: for the past few years, my University has been involved in a small, awkward cold war with local emergency responders over expectations on live-in Residential Assistants during emergency situations. Specifically, the biggest flashpoints are fire alarms and wellness checks on residents.

Within the dorms, we have been told that both Campus Police and Local Fire Departments have been provided keys to all rooms in case an emergency (fire or safety) is reported. We have also been told that we are, under no circumstances, to assist Police or Fire with entering a room (to which we have keys as Resident Assistants, for lockouts and the like) until we have received permission from several layers of (on-call) department administration.

The heads of the Residential Services Office insist that this is to protect the department in the case of a privacy complaint on behalf of a resident who we let police into the room of, and to avoid liability from ordering (by policy) RAs back into a potentially dangerous building under alarm.

Police and fire, meanwhile, never seem to have the keys. Thus, for the safety of the building or the resident, they will order us to open up the door for them, right now.

Which brings us to the issue: Police/fire wants us to open a door, and gives us what I believe is a lawful order do so. Meanwhile, Residence Life policy wants us to call up to our supervisor and follow a whole procedure, directly countermanding the orders of the officer or firefighter on scene.

Must I open the door, legally speaking? And is my department's policy of refusal illegal/unenforceable?

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    Public university? It's obviously something that needs to be clarified by your university's legal counsel (with them talking to the city police/fire) and stipulated in writing and in your RA work contract. Talk to the legal counsel; they will be part of the overall U administration, at the same admin level as the president, provost, etc. – BlueDogRanch Jul 14 at 21:40
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    "under no circumstances, to assist Police or Fire with entering a room". Are you allowed to give them the keys and let them do it? – DJClayworth Jul 15 at 15:56
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    Out of curiosity, has there ever been an instance where Police/Fire Rescue HAS ordered an RA back into "a dangerous building under alarm"?? – ThunderGuppy Jul 15 at 19:54
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    It might be worth mentioning the flip side liability: if someone is injured or dies due to a delay caused by ResLife explicit policy to refuse to assist fire rescue in the performance of their duties. Or the privacy/safety implications of having a kicked in door which no longer locks for an indeterminate amount of time. – TemporalWolf Jul 15 at 21:10
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    Can you just hand them the key and let them open it themselves? – Kevin Jul 16 at 17:21
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There is a state law that requires you to obey the police: ORC 2917.13, which says you may not

Fail to obey the lawful order of any law enforcement officer engaged in the law enforcement officer's duties at the scene of or in connection with a fire, accident, disaster, riot, or emergency of any kind.

If you do,

misconduct at an emergency is a misdemeanor of the fourth degree. If a violation of this section creates a risk of physical harm to persons or property, misconduct at an emergency is a misdemeanor of the first degree.

You also cannot

Hamper the lawful operations of any law enforcement officer, firefighter, rescuer, medical person, emergency medical services person, or other authorized person, engaged in the person's duties at the scene of a fire, accident, disaster, riot, or emergency of any kind

"Hamper" is not defined statutorily, but the plain meaning of "hamper" is not the same as "fail to assist". We have not established that the order is lawful, however, which is crucial. The police cannot just freely search a residence without permission. If they have permission from the occupant, they can search and seize. If they have probable cause to believe that a crime exists and the circumstances make a warrant impractical, they can search and seize. I don't know what you mean by "wellness check", but that seems plainly to be unlawful entry. However, if the resident calls 911 and reports that he is having an issue, that is sufficient consent for entry.

In the case of a fire alarm, the fire code authorizes a fire department official in charge of an actual emergency response incident to order the evacuation of a building, and occupants are required to comply. If we suppose that the smoke detector in a room has gone off, the fire department is authorized to inspect for fire, and there is a provision under the law about failure to obey a lawful command (to open the door so that they can look for fire). Problem: you cannot know whether the order is lawful. The officer doesn't decide what is lawful, the courts do (after the fact), and typically a command is found to be lawful unless it is clearly unlawful.

The order from your supervisor is not "enforceable" in the sense that you cannot be arrested, imprisoned, or fined for disobeying your boss. However, there is a potential club they can use against you, namely firing you for disobeying the order. Normally, you can be fired for wearing the wrong shirt. But there are laws about employers doing illegal things, such as ORC 4113.52, which provides recourse when

the employee reasonably believes that the violation is a criminal offense that is likely to cause an imminent risk of physical harm to persons or a hazard to public health or safety

etc. In which case you report this to the supervisor, they have 24 hours after getting the report to correct the situation, and after that you would report the situation to the county prosecutor. (Read all of the details in the linked law, don't just skip steps: this is an executive summary). Having done this, you are protected from being fired, demoted. reassigned etc. The employer will be strongly motivated to not incur the penalties for violating the whistle blower statute. Additionally, you can sue the employer if they fire you for refusing to violate the law (termination in violation of public policy).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Dale M Sep 30 at 0:45
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I'm speculating a bit, but it is sometimes hard to distinguish a 'request' from an 'order' when dealing with law enforcement. Police might say "Can you open this door for us please?". But this can mean either "we would like you to open this door for us if you don't mind" or "we are ordering you to open this door, but in a polite way".

I wold perhaps recommend that if you encounter police you establish which of the two meanings it is. If police would like you to open the door, then it is entirely reasonable that you say no and refer them to the university bureaucracy to get permission. But if they order you to do it you are going to have difficultly justifying a refusal.

In terms of legal situation, if they request you open the door, and you comply when the resident didn't want it, then the legal repercussions are going to be on you and the university. But if they clearly order you to do it, and you comply (as the law requires) then if it turns out not to be lawful it will be the police who are in trouble.

The key thing would be to say "are you ordering me to open this door?". If they say yes, open it. If not, refer them to the university.

In the meantime the sensible thing is to take this up with your university legal department, and ask what they expect to happen if a cop shows up and demands entry to an apartment.

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    It seems the police will never be 'in trouble' – mark b Jul 15 at 20:14
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Wife was an RA at a women's college.

I'm seeing this from two perspectives...

1) the police / fire are just human beings like you and me. They're not infallable. There may be a single set of keys, and the person responding might not have them. But, if the officer or fire personel are responding to an emergency, then they do need access. Facilitating their entry should be a top priority, regardless of what the uni policy says. The uni policy is about protecting the uni as a business (from lawsuits) not about protecting people. But, ironically, this sets them up for lawsuits. Because, all it takes is for an RA to not help the Police / Fire get in, and then the student behind closed-doors ends up dying (seizure, drug overdose, whatever).. and the uni will have a major legal issue on their hands.

2) you have to be wary of people impersonating law enforcement ... it's very easy for people to mock up uniforms that pass casual inspection, especially when they come running into the lobby of a dorm and say "We got an emergency call for XYZ! Show us where it's at!" At the women's dorm my wife worked at, they were wary of ex boyfriends and girlfriends trying to show up, gain entry, and possibly stalk or abuse a student. Some of these folks tried to be very sneaky .. dress like delivery people, try to sneeak through when they thought nobody was looking, etc.

So, my suggestion would be to try to take the time to verify the emergency personel are who they say they are, and once you feel comfortable with that.. ignore uni policy and do what you can to help.

In almost every case ... an RA will get notified if an emergecy is happening. Someone will call 911, and then others will run to find an RA and tell them something's up. People panic when things go down, and RA's are seen as "baby sitters" expected to step in and resolve the issue.

So, 9 times out of 10, you will know when you're expecting police or fire.. and you just greet them, escort them, and open the door if they can't access.

It's that 10th time .. when the emergency folks show up out of the blue.. you need to just be very wary of why they're there. Ask to call in to their home base (police or fire dept) to verify there was a call. Speak with a dispatcher or commanding officer on duty to verify.

The police or fire should be accomodating of that... because most of the time calls are for someone that thinks they're being threatened or such (someone using 911 to go nuclear on an a-hole neighbor).

So, go with your gut ... help the emergency personel out, but also verify they are who they say they are. If some cops or fire randomly show up in a vehicle that doesn't quite seem right (or DON'T PARK IN FRONT OF THE DOMR.. IE: are trying to hide their vehicle), you should be having red flags going off in your head.

Also, after RA'ing for a while, you'll start to recognize the "regulars".. you'll know who are and aren't campus police and local fire. If you see someone show up out of the blue saying their police or fire, and you don't recognize them.. call up the dept they say they're from and get verification of who they are. The moment you start doing that, anyone shady is gonna be like "gee, look at the time.. I've got another call I need to be on". And, that's when you know you've got a con artist.

  • Thanks for the perspective! I've been an RA for a couple of years now, and the Office made sure to introduce us to our local 3rd shift officers (because realistically, that's who we're going to be seeing a lot of...), but it's good to remember to verify. We're taught to always take down badge numbers during a call, specifically for this purpose. – bracec Jul 17 at 4:15
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I would check your local and state laws regarding rendering aid (often referred to as Good Samaritan Laws). Usually, when acting in good faith in the assistance of a person who is reasonably believed to be ind distress, you cannot be punished for damages in the course of rendering aid (Often called Life over Limb policy, the hypothetical situation is that if a doctor must immediately remove a distressed person's arm to save his life, the patient may not sue the doctor for the amputation without the patient's consent). Similarly evidence found of a crime following a warrentless entry when the occupant is believed to be in distress is admissible in courts. For example, Suppose the police hear a little old lady cry "Help Me!" while passing by her house and enter intent to render aid, and while searching for the little old lady, they find her meth lab, that evidence is admissible in court.

Good Samaritan Laws have a second component. Suppose the initial doctor amputation scenario, but this time the doctor is not in a hosptial but driving home after work and witnesses a horrible wreck where one of the victims can only live if the amputation is performed against his will. In this case, the doctor is not in a duty status or on the clock and may look the other way. He can similarly not be held liable for failing to amputate the man's arm and saving his life because at the time, he was not expected to act as doctor. This may seem cruel and heartless and there is little justification for a bystanding first responder to not do what he can to help, but you can only be expected to render aid when it's you're expected to be at your job (it could be the doctor just pulled a 12 hour shift and is not comfortable to perform an amputation while exhausted.).

So in effect, Good Sam. Laws:

*Protect first responders from liabilty when rendering aid they are qualified to render in such a situation regardless of duty status.

*Protects a first resonder in from liability when refusing to render aid when refusing to do so in a non-duty status.

Thus, if the police or firefighters or EMS show up whil acting as an RA and ask for entry to a resident dorm in good faith while you are on duty as the RA, rendering assitence by unlocking the room will not make you liable for any harm that comes to the resident, and should be on your side if your employer chooses to take disciplinary actions in a court of law (i.e. they terminate your employment and you sue for wrongful termination. The augment in this case is the life of the resident trumps following proper procedures in a good faith belief of immanent danger.).

At a more stretched read, by giving the police master keys to the dorms, the school already forfeited it's right to privacy from such unwarranted entries and evidence seized in a good faith wellness check is admissible in a court of law in the united states.

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Assuming this is a US-based campus, the Constitution grants protection from unwarranted searches as well as a guarantee of personal privacy. A police officer can't legally ask you to open a resident's door since you don't own the property, and the campus could be charged with violating civil rights if you did. There's still a gray area, but there should be other protocols in place when dealing with specific life-threatening situations, such as fire.

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    The RA is acting as an agent of the university, who does own the property. – DJClayworth Jul 16 at 18:14
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    A police officer can't demand that a door to be opened on a whim* or without lawful cause (a cop can ask for many things not lawful to demand). But probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is being committed, or reasonable grounds to believe that a person is in danger, would justify such a demand. failing to comply with an even arguably lawful police order is a crime, and may lead to arrest an prosecution. The exact details of what is known or alleged as reason for demanding access would be vital to any such case. – David Siegel Jul 16 at 18:14
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    The RA is NOT the owner though, and as such, does not have the authority to allow entry for any reason beyond the protection of the property itself. This is further evidenced by the need for the campus to codify the rules as they pertain to RA's. If there is ever a conflict, it would be between the campus and the EMS organization to resolve. – Keith Jul 16 at 21:17
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    The US Constitution guarantees personal privacy? Really? – CGCampbell Jul 17 at 17:47
  • @Keith, worth noting is that the RA is, in fact, an authorized party for the owner: the board of trustees, who, via the president, head of housing, head of Res Life, and local RA boss, do vest the authority in the RA as an owner representative. Further, I think you may have missed the point: as random dude with the key, I could still be ordered to open the door all the same. It's not really about the contract: it's about the legality of the orders. – bracec Jul 19 at 15:11

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