A recent ruling by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in a case involving Dartmouth may limit the privacy rights of students attending private colleges and universities, according to Robert DeKoven, a professor at California Western School of Law.
However, other jurists disagreed, saying that the decision upheld previous court rulings regarding private institutions and civil liberties, rather than setting a new precedent.
The case involved Adam Nemser '01, who was charged with marijuana possession in 1995. The state supreme court ruled late last month that, though Safety and Security officers did not have a warrant when they searched Nemser's dormitory room, evidence obtained by the College's security service could be used against him in court.
Lawyers for Nemser had previously convinced a lower court that, by handing over confiscated materials to the Hanover Police, Safety and Security officers acted as agents of the state and had therefore violated the student's Fourth Amendment protection.
If the case is brought to the next level -- the U.S. Supreme Court -- it might have national impact, DeKoven said.
But Dartmouth General Counsel Robert Donin doubted that the ruling will create any legal waves.
"If Mr. Nesmer sought review by the Supreme Court, I doubt that the Court would accept the case because it reaffirms a well-established rule of constitutional law, namely, that constitutional guarantees such as the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizures only apply to state action and not to actions by private parties," Donin said.
Vermont Law School professor Sheldon Novick agreed with Donin, saying, "I don't believe that it's a departure" from legal precedent.
Because Dartmouth is a private institution that employs a non-police security force, Safety and Security officers are not required to abide by the same laws as police officers trained by the state. In addition, they do not have state police powers, Donin said.
If an officer finds illegal substances during a College-authorized room search, they are legally entitled to turn them over to the local authorities -- even without a search warrant. Such a standard does not apply only to Dartmouth.
"We'd handle it the same way. You can't go on a witch hunt; you have to have a reason for being there, whether it's a complaint or a safety concern," said Bruce Bucher, director of security at Bowdoin College. Bowdoin, like Dartmouth, uses a private security force.
But at Tufts University, the campus security force is a special unit of the state police and therefore has to abide by different rules, said Tufts Police Department Capt. Mark Keith.
"We would have to abide by all state and federal laws in regards to search and seizure," Keith said.