Officers Question Legality of Dorm Walkthroughs
ADMINISTRATION PROMPTED TO CHANGE POLICY
BY RAY STILL
The threshold between public and private at Evergreen is only as thick as a doorway—college administration has said that students should not expect any privacy out in the hallways of their dorm.
Resident advisors, resident directors, and campus police patrol the hallways of the A, B, C, and D dorms during the nights and weekends. Their patrols do not include the suites, or the groups of single rooms, in the dorms, nor do officers search individual rooms without consent or a warrant. On-campus officers are invited into the dorms to perform walkthroughs by Residence and Dining Services Director Sharon Goodman, and not by individual RA or RD staff.
Evergreen police officers have discussed the legality of these walkthroughs for several years. Earlier this year, Officers Tammi Stretch and Dwight Monohon officially questioned the walkthrough policy, and said it is not only illegal, but in violation of student privacy rights laid out by the Fourth Amendment. The CPJ was informed anonymously of these events and the disciplinary actions that followed. The anonymous information was proved accurate through several public information requests. Stretch and Monohon emailed Ed Sorger, police chief at Evergreen, about the legality of walkthroughs. The officers suggested that Police Services be on stand-by outside the dorms or in a common room while RAs conducted walkthroughs. Sorger allowed Stretch, Monohon, and any other officers who felt uncomfortable with walkthroughs to be on stand-by during the rounds until college administration received legal advice.
While the college was talking to their Attorney General representative, Stretch distributed sticky-notes to RAs and RDs. The notes referenced State v. Houvener, a Washington court case that ruled on the privacy expectations of dorm hallways. Sorger asked for a written explanation from Stretch because he felt she “overstepped [her] position” in attempting to explain to RAs and RDs why she was not performing walkthroughs.
In her explanation, Stretch said she wrote that she believed she was operating within the standard operating procedure of staying up on case law, that she wanted to inform housing staff about the case law, and she wanted to protect her fellow officers from potential civil rights cases.
Stretch was given a letter of reprimand in December for addressing the policies and procedures of Police Services without permission from the director.
Both Monohon and Stretch declined to comment on any further proceedings, in order to avoid any additional repercussions from public testimony.
In winter quarter, the Office of Student Affairs determined that the current first-year dorm walkthrough policies are legal and constitutional. However, some changes have been made to the current policies, and the housing policies will be updated and made more clear to students coming into housing next year.
State v. Houvener and Hallway Privacy
The 2008 State v. Houvener ruling determined that “students at public institutions have an expectation of privacy in the hallways of their residence halls and police may not patrol the hallways without a search warrant unless one of the warrant exceptions exist,” according to The Law of Higher Education, Fifth Edition: Student Version. Warrant exceptions include emergencies and cases of probable cause.
The State v. Houvener case was brought to court after a Washington State University (WSU) officer performed a search for stolen items through a WSU residence hall—the officer had neither a warrant nor permission from students to search the hall. The court ruled that Jacob Houvener, one of the students who stole the items, had a reasonable expectation of privacy on his dorm floor, and the officer had no legal authority to search Houvener’s floor or order Houvener to open his door.
One of the reasons the court determined that students could expect privacy in the WSU dorms was because the hall the officer was searching had shared bathrooms that were located across the hall from the bedrooms. According to The Law of Higher Education, sharing a bathroom that was not connected to the bedroom can be considered intimate activity, like students “walking through the hallways clad in a towel on the way from the shower.”
State v. Houvener is a primary argument of the officers questioning Evergreen walkthrough policy. Because the case ruled that hallways can be considered private, the Evergreen officers argue that patrolling the hallways of the first-year dorms could be considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment because there is no probable cause or warrant to patrol through the dorms.
At Evergreen, hallways could be considered private because the hallway doors are locked to the public, the elevators require a student I.D. to operate, and student groups aren’t allowed to solicit in the dorms. If you’re not a resident of a first-year dorm or visiting a friend in the dorm, chances are, you’re not supposed to be there.
Changes in Evergreen’s Policy
Even though the college’s legal council advised that Evergreen’s current walkthrough policy is legal, the Office of Student Affairs and RAD Services have made some changes to walkthrough policy—police walkthroughs will be phased out during spring quarter every school year.
Goodman explained that for fall quarter, RAs, RDs, and campus police do their walkthroughs together through the first-year dorms to show that the separate offices work together. “People are trying to learn community standards, people don’t know who lives in the community, so for safety and security, we always have everybody walk around,” Goodman said.
Goodman said that RDs are phased out from the walkthroughs in winter quarter, and then campus police in spring. She explained the reason for phasing police walkthroughs out in the spring is because there are less people living in the first-year dorms, and the “RAs and the RDs feel more skilled and comfortable” at their duties.
“We are not going to change our practice, but we are going to make it clear to students what we are doing,” Goodman said. “We are going to make sure it’s really clear in the contact that they should expect no privacy in the hallways, in A through D.”
The Legalities Behind Walkthroughs
Goodman contacted several of her peers in other colleges to get information about how other schools handle walkthroughs. According to Goodman’s data, Washington State University, Eastern Washington University, and Western Washington University do not have on-campus officers patrol the residence halls.
The University of Washington’s housing policy allows campus police to perform walkthroughs, but Goodman said that they have not done police walkthroughs recently.
Central Washington University reported that they occasionally performed walkthroughs with on-campus police, and the University of Washington’s Bothell campus reported on-campus police perform walkthroughs. However, UW’s Bothell campus is comprised of apartment-style housing, as opposed to dorm style housing, so their walkthroughs are performed differently, according to Goodman.
A difference between the dorm set-ups at WSU and Evergreen is how the bathrooms are situated. The officer involved in the Houvener case searched a dorm hall with bathrooms separate from the bedrooms, which means a student would have to leave their room to use the facilities. At Evergreen, rooms that are separated from the bathrooms are clustered together in suites. These suites are often separated from the hallways by a door, which students who live in the suites can lock. When Police Services perform walkthroughs, they do not search the suites unless they have a specific reason to enter them.
Any room that lines the hallways in Evergreen dorms have the bathrooms attached to the rooms, so residents do not need to leave their room to use the facilities.
Dorms at Evergreen also do not have a front desk that checks students in. At other schools, “you have to go through a front office person. It’s not just key access. People are checking you in,” said Goodman. “Someone is the gatekeeper, and we don’t have that kind of system.” Goodman said that it’s a common occurrence for Evergreen residents to invite non-students into the halls or leave the locked hallway doors open for non-resident access.
Another reason administration decided the current walkthrough policy is legal is because Goodman, the director of RAD services, invites on-campus officers into the dorms, not RAs or RDs. Goodman said that this has been a practice for as long as she has been the RAD director, and probably even before. Currently, the housing contract at Evergreen does not specify that the police perform walkthroughs through the dorms.
Officer Seth Moore wrote a rebuttal to this argument after examining an email sent to all Evergreen officers about the changes in walkthough policy.
Moore wrote that if it is necessary for RAD to invite officers into the dorms, then that concedes the point that hallways have an expectation of privacy, and officers should not be there.
Moore also argued that RAD may not have the authority to invite police on walkthroughs, anyway.
“RAD inviting the police into these private areas for no legal or criminal reason is like the pool boy inviting the cops into your master bedroom. Neither the pool boy nor RAD live in the location.”
Moore clarified that he was only writing about walkthrough policy, and that on-campus police should be involved and present during criminal activity in the dorms.
Moore declined to comment on his arguments, and Goodman said walkthrough policy will be made more clear in a housing contract update later this year, specifying that police services will perform walkthoughs with RAD services. Individual RAs and RDs will still have no say in inviting campus police into the building.
Ed Sorger, the police chief at Evergreen, said that the walkthroughs are about partnership and teamwork with housing. “It’s a community policing effort—not a fishing expedition,” he said. “We decided that we would make sure students at the beginning of the school year would know that officers are going to be there as a part of the community and a part of the safety issue, and that officers are a resource to students.”
Wendy Endress, the vice president of student affairs, echoed Sorger’s sentiment, and said the walkthroughs are “oriented to a community policing model, where the police aren’t only present when bad things happen. The police are a consistent presence when good things are happening, also.”
To show that students living on campus feel secure in their dorms, Goodman cited a recent survey put out by RAD Services earlier this year. The survey was taken by 287 residential students, and 45 percent of those students were first-years.
One of the questions on the survey asked students about how they felt about the security of their possessions in their rooms. On a scale from one to seven, one being dissatisfied with the security and seven being very satisfied with the security, 77.5 percent of students answered with a six or seven.
When students were asked about how safe they felt in their rooms, 85 percent of students answered with a six or seven.
82 percent of students answered with a six or seven when asked with how safe they felt in their building or apartment.
67 percent of students answered a six or seven when asked with how safe they felt walking around campus at night.
“Our safety numbers are really high. People feel safe,” said Goodman. “That’s sort of why we’ve been doing walkthroughs. It hasn’t been because of policy; we’ve been doing it for safety.”
Caitlin Jennings, a senior Evergreen student in the Clinical Psychology: the Scientist/Practitioner Model program, said that the walkthroughs are a way Police Services markets its services and resources to students.
Jennings and Eli Sobylak, another student, conducted a mixed-methodology study about Police Services’ relationship with the rest of the Evergreen community for their program. They got 95 student responses, 19 staff and faculty responses, and one police officer response.
Jennings said that while she sees the walkthroughs as an effective marketing technique, she also said that it’s only effective when students feel safe and react positively. While their anonymous survey collected many positive statements towards police presence, other students revealed their discomfort.
One of the questions on the survey was, “Describe some specific steps you believe the Police could take to better the relationship between themselves and the community.” One of the students who responded to the survey wrote, “It’s fucking illegal to go into the dorms without proper consent. Western Washington already had a case and won against warrantless police searches.”
“If walkthroughs are not making students comfortable, the question is, why? What is discomforting?” Jennings asked rhetorically. “Are students scared of the power that police have, that this person has the ability to harm them? An act of arrest is physical harm. You are subtracting this person from the well-being of a normal environment, removing them and putting them in an institution. That is a high threat to some individuals.”
Nathan Lafkoff, an Evergreen sophomore and RAD Services staff, said that the walkthroughs didn’t make him feel safer. “Police are there for people’s safety and security, but when they are doing walkthroughs, it doesn’t look like that,” Lafkoff said. “It looks like they actively trying to get people in trouble instead of actively trying to keep people safe. That is what RAs and RDs are good for, because they are students at Evergreen, or people who are invested in the well-being of students.”
Lafkoff said that the walkthroughs and patrols on campus were one of the main reasons he and his friends moved off campus, and that the college may be able to get more students to live on campus if Police Services did not perform walkthroughs.
For Lafkoff, the issue of student privacy is not about the legalities—he said it’s more like a “business model.”
“What do you want housing to feel like?” Lafkoff said. “Do you want it to feel like it’s a public space, like a street? Or do you want to feel like you’re living in the building with a community?”
“Don’t you freeze up when a cop drives by you on the road?” he asked. “It’s that same sort of thing, but it is in your hallway, knocking on your door. You get up to use the bathroom at night and there is a cop in your hallway. That feels scary.”