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Dealing With Campus Police: Top 3 Legal FAQs For College Students

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

Going off to college can often be an overwhelming and scary experience for many young adults. For most freshman, it will be their first time living on their own, and often, college students spend a vast majority of their time on campus.

College students are likely to see, and maybe even have encounters with, campus police. After all, the institutions have a duty to keep their students safe, and providing actual police officers or, minimally, security guards is usually necessary to do so. Fortunately, when campus police encounters happen, it is good to know that, for the most part, a student's constitutional rights remain intact.

Below, you'll find the top three frequently asked legal questions college students have when it comes to dealing with campus police.

1. Are Campus and University Cops Real Police Officers?

The answer to this question varies from school to school. Often, institutions will actually have their own police forces that are legitimate state or local police officers. Sometimes, state or local police will be contracted to provide additional security on campus. When schools hire actual officers, these university cops, or campus cops, will have official police authority to stop, question, search, arrest, and use force against, criminal suspects.

However, many schools also hire private security guards, or contract with private security companies. Private security guards should be easily distinguishable from real police based upon their uniforms and vehicles, as imitating a real officer is a crime. Security guards have less authority than officers, but may still be authorized to conduct preliminary investigations and physically detain suspects (if necessary) until real police arrive. While there may not be a legal obligation to cooperate with a security guard, schools may have policies and consequences for refusing to cooperate with campus security.

2. Can I Refuse to Answer a Campus Cop's Questions?

Whether a campus cop is a real officer, or just hired security, the Fifth Amendment provides the right to remain silent. If you are being questioned by a real officer, you can invoke your right to remain silent, and stop the questioning by affirmatively demanding a lawyer before answering any (more) questions.

However, it should be noted again that some institutions have disciplinary policies that provide consequences for refusing to cooperate with a university investigation. While these policies may be questionable when it comes to constitutionality, especially at public universities, or if real officers are used to conduct the investigations, fighting that legal battle could be rather costly, both financially and in terms of time.

3. Can University Police Search Me or My Dorm Room?

Thanks to the Fourth Amendment, without probable cause, an officer cannot conduct a search of your person, excepting in situations where a cursory weapon pat down is remotely justifiable. However, like refusing to answer questions during a university investigation, despite the constitutional concerns, refusing to consent to a search from university security or officers while on campus could result in disciplinary consequences, depending on school policy and the purpose of the investigation.

If you live in university housing, your right to refuse consent for a search of your dorm room may be limited depending on who's asking to search, and when the request is made. Often, university staff will have the right, depending on your rental agreement and school policy, to inspect university property, including dorm rooms, for maintenance or other ordinary purposes.

But when it comes to searches that are part of a criminal investigation, constitutional protections will apply. The consent provided by school policy or a rental agreement to conduct incidental maintenance/routine inspections cannot be delegated to police for a criminal search. Unless there has been an arrest, or there are special circumstances (such as reason to believe that evidence is being actively destroyed) that justify police to conduct a search incident to a criminal investigation, a warrant will be needed.

Unfortunately, if you have a roommate, their consent may be enough to allow a search of your room, unless you are present and able to object.

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