Campus Public Safety Officers Are Not State Actors Under Fourth Amendment

Filed under: Criminal Law, Drug Crimes by Contributor @ November 6, 2018

Can public safety officers search a dorm room without permission or a warrant?

In a recent case, Commonwealth v. Yim, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held the trial court committed no error of law or abuse of discretion in making its determination that Villanova University Public Safety Officers were not state actors for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the fruits of the search by safety officers of a dorm room without a warrant or the occupant’s permission was admissible at trial.

On February 16th, 2016, Villanova campus public safety officers responded to an assault and LSD ingestion at a residence hall on Villanova’s campus. The Villanova director of Public Safety was notified, and he sought permission from the Vice President for Student Life and the Dean of Students to search the student’s room where the incident occurred. Safety officers believed there might be more LSD in the room. Administrators gave their permission and after several attempts to contact the student, safety officers searched the room using a master key. A search of the room produced LSD, marijuana, packaging paraphernalia, and large bundles of cash. The Radnor police were contacted. The Radnor police officers went to the scene, but never entered the room and stayed in the hallway. Campus safety officers turned the items from the student’s room over to the Radnor police.

The defendant student filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from his room, but his motion was denied by the trial court. He was subsequently convicted of two counts of Possession of a Controlled Substance with the Intent to Deliver, one count of Possession of a Controlled Substance, and seven counts of Possession of Drug Paraphernalia.

The Defendant appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. The question presented to the appellate court was whether the trial court was erroneous in concluding the defendant was not subject to state action when public safety officers searched his dorm room without a warrant.  The Superior Court said mere cooperation with state actors does not rise to “state action.” In this case, because the University made the decision to search the room unilaterally and there was no input or oversight from the Radnor police, the search did not rise to “state action.” Specifically, the court held, “[b]ecause the present facts demonstrate nothing more than the University’s conveyance of privately obtained evidence to police, the University’s search is not attributable to the state on this basis.”

The court also held, “the powers vested unto VUPS officers were not tantamount to those within the exclusive prerogative of the state. Instead, they derived from the University and were limited in scope relative to municipal police powers.”

The takeaway: campus safety officers are not state actors under the Fourth Amendment. This means campus safety officers may search a dorm room without a warrant and turn over evidence they find to the police. This evidence can be used against you in court.

To speak to a Fairlie and Lippy, P.C. attorney about your rights, contact us today.

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