University Student Inspection of Dorm Room Did Not Violate Fourth Amendment; Marijuana Was Admissible in Student's Suspension Hearing

Category: Education Matters
Date: Jan 27, 2014 06:52 PM

Zachary Medlock was a sophomore at Indiana University who lived in one of the University dormitories.  As a condition of living in the dorm, Medlock had agreed to comply with numerous dorm rules, including one that allowed graduate students employed as inspectors to inspect his room periodically. 

On the occasion at issue in this case, University officials had notified Medlock and other students a week in advance that there would be an inspection of his floor in the dorm building.  The inspection was also announced over the loudspeaker immediately beforehand.  During the search, the student inspectors found a tube containing marijuana in Medlock's room.  Medlock was not in his room at the time.  The inspectors notified the University police, and a police officer came to confiscate the tube.  While in the room, the officer noticed a six-foot tall marijuana plant through Medlock's slightly ajar closet door.  The officer returned with a warrant and confiscated the evidence.

While Medlock was initially charged with felony possession of marijuana under Indiana state law, these charges were ultimately dropped.  The University immediately suspended Medlock for one year, and held a suspension hearing seventeen days after the suspension took effect.  During the hearing, the University commission upheld the suspension.  The following year, Medlock reapplied and was accepted to the University.

Medlock sued several University officials, the two graduate student inspectors and the police officer under the civil rights statute 42 U.S.C. section 1983, arguing that the search of his dorm room violated the Fourth Amendment and that the marijuana was not admissible at his suspension hearing.  He sought damages and destruction of the record of his suspension.

The district court dismissed Medlock's suit and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.  First, the Court held that the marijuana was admissible because the rule that prohibits introduction of unlawfully obtained evidence at trial only applies to criminal trials—not school suspension hearings.  The Court explained that there was no question that expulsion from a public school was not similar enough to a criminal trial to warrant application of this exclusionary rule.

Second, the Court held that the graduate student inspectors did not violate Medlock's Fourth Amendment rights.  The Court explained that there was no violation because Medlock had consented in advance to the search by choosing to live in the dormitory.  The Court noted that while the University housing contract authorized student-led inspections, it did not give authority to these graduate students to consent on behalf of the resident to a police search.  Therefore, the police officer may not have had consent to enter and search Medlock's room.  However, the Court decided that if such a violation existed, any resulting harm was minimal because "the intrusion on Medlock's privacy was complete before [the officer] entered."  Further, the officer acted reasonably by backing up the student inspectors, who had seen the marijuana in plain view.  Accordingly, the Court found no violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Medlock v. Trustees of Indiana University (7th Cir. 2013) 738 F.3d 867.

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