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College and University Police Authority to Search and Arrest in Massachusetts

As a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I defend students arrested by college or university police on criminal charges. Clients are often surprised to learn that campus police – or public safety officers – are limited by Massachusetts state law from many law enforcement duties of regular city and state police officers. This blog will discuss several important factors that an experienced criminal defense attorney would consider when litigating a campus police search and arrest.

College or university police officers are appointed as special State officers under a Massachusetts statute (G.L. c. 22C, ยง 63) that grants them the same authority to make arrests as regular police officers for any criminal offense within their particular jurisdiction. But although students have more limited rights to privacy because of the college’s interest in keeping the community safe, this does not necessarily translate into more police power for campus police. In fact, the courts have consistently held that campus police officers are more restricted in making arrests and searching a student’s dorm room or possessions.

A good example of the statutory limits on a campus officer’s search and arrest authority is discussed in a case that involved Boston University police officers situated outside the University’s property and near an interstate highway. In Commonwealth v. Hernandez, two BU officers observed Hernandez pumping gas on a public road near an interstate highway outside the university grounds, and decided to check his registration. When the officers discovered that an arrest warrant was issued for Hernandez on a misdemeanor, they stopped and arrested Hernandez and conducted an inventory search of his vehicle. The officers discovered evidence of drug possession and distribution. Hernandez moved to suppress the evidence discovered in his vehicle, and the trial judge excluded them from admission.

The Supreme Judicial Court held that unlike regular police officers, campus police did not have authority to execute this arrest warrant for two reasons. First, the offense for which the arrest warrant was issued was a misdemeanor committed outside of campus. Second, the campus police executed the arrest warrant outside of campus and on public roads not in the officers’ jurisdiction. Because the warrant was issued for crimes off campus grounds and the arrest was also made off campus grounds, the Court held that the officers were acting outside the scope of their authority. Therefore, any evidence of drug possession and distribution discovered by the officers during the inventory search of the car following the unauthorized arrest could not be used to prosecute the defendants in court.

Campus police authority is also limited in the context of searching a student’s college dorm without a warrant. The Supreme Judicial Court in Commonewalth v. Neilson heard a case involving a student at Fitchburg State College who was arrested by campus police after safety inspectors discovered drug contraband and paraphernalia in the student’s college dorm. While Neilson was away from his dorm, school officials notified his roommate of a health and safety inspection to be conducted in their dorm later that day. When the safety inspectors entered the dorm, they discovered a light emanating from the closet. Believing it to be a fire, they opened the closet and found marijuana plants along with other drug paraphernalia. The school officials then notified the campus police, who entered the room without a warrant, photographed and confiscated the plants, and charged Neilson with several drug related offenses.

After the search was challenged by Neilson, the SJC held that the campus police violated Neilson’s constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court distinguished searches on college campuses from those at elementary and secondary schools, requiring probable cause and a warrant, when there is no express consent or exigent circumstances. Thus, college or university students, like all other individuals (except elementary and secondary school students) enjoy the full benefit of their constitutional rights to privacy and guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures. Therefore, in the case of Neilson, any evidence obtained by campus police during their unauthorized search of the dorm room violated Neilson’s constitutional rights and could not be used against him.

As explained above, campus police officers are appointed as special officers under a particular state statute that limits the scope of their authority and jurisdiction. Criminal defense attorneys representing individuals arrested or searched by officers appointed under this statute should carefully review the basis and context of the case for any statutory violations. If the officers were acting outside their statutory authority, the courts will suppress all evidence produced from the unlawful arrest or search, and may dismiss the charges.

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