The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Yim, holding that the Villanova Public Safety Officers are not state agents for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. This is a significant decision for those who attend private universities which do not have police forces because it means that campus safety officers may be able to search a dorm room without a search warrant.
Commonwealth v. Yim
On February 13, 2016, Villanova University’s Public Safety Officers became engaged in violent confrontations with two resident students and a female visitor who later admitted to ingesting LSD. These three individuals were restrained by the public safety officers until Radnor Police Officers arrived on scene. One of the residents lived at Good Counsel Hall, which is located on Villanova’s campus, with the defendant. It is important to note that although Villanova has now established an actual police force, at the time, its officers were not police. They did not have arrest powers or carry weapons or handcuffs. Further, Villanova is a private university.
As a condition of living at Good Counsel Hall, the defendant had signed a housing contract in which he consented to a search of a dorm room where it has been determined by public safety officers that items or individuals in a particular room pose a possible safety or health risk to the community. Later that day, the Villanova University Director of Public Safety was advised of the events that transpired involving the defendant’s roommate. The administration subsequently ordered a search of the defendant’s room.
Prior to searching the room, the administrators unsuccessfully attempted to contact the defendant by telephone. The Director of Public Safety, along with two Public Safety Officers, unlocked and entered the dorm room. Once inside, they observed contraband and cash strewn throughout the room. They saw a syringe in plain view on top of a desk. The defendant’s passport, cash, LSD “stamps”, marijuana, $8,865.00, and other drug paraphernalia was also found on and in the defendant’s desk.
After the contraband was recovered, the Director of Public Safety called the Villanova University dispatcher and asked him to contact the Radnor Police Department to report the discovery of the drugs and paraphernalia. The Radnor Police arrived on scene, but they remained in the hall outside the room. The police officers never entered the room nor did they participate in the search. After the public safety officers searched the room, they turned over the contraband and other items to the Radnor Police. The Public Safety Officers also provided an investigative report, which included photographs, for future use in University administrative proceedings. The police then obtained an arrest warrant for the defendant. He was eventually arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession with the intent to deliver (“PWID”).
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from his person and the dorm room. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that the public safety officers did not need a search warrant to search the dorm room because they were not law enforcement officers and Villanova was not a public university. The trial court found the defendant guilty after a non-jury trial and sentenced him to a term of three to 23 months’ incarceration plus four years probation.
What is the Fourth Amendment?
The Fourth Amendment provides:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The Fourth Amendment often provides a defense to criminal charges relating to drug possession, illegal gun possession, or the possession of other contraband because it prevents the prosecution from introducing evidence at trial if the evidence was seized illegally. However, one significant limit on the Fourth Amendment is that it does not apply to searches and seizures conducted by other private citizens. It only protects citizens from the government; it does not protect them from private actors. Thus, the Fourth Amendment may be invoked as part of a motion to suppress evidence when the when a government actor like a police officer enters an individual’s home without a search warrant or stops someone without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. In this case, however, the officers who seized the contraband from the dorm room did not work for the government. They were not police officers performing a government function and Villanova is a private school.
Can the Fourth Amendment Apply to Non-State Actors?
In some circumstances, the Fourth Amendment can apply even to non-government employees. For example, the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures do apply to non-state actors when private individuals act as an instrument or agent of a state. Here, the defendant argued at the motion to suppress that Villanova’s public safety department had assumed a governmental function and essentially acted as the police. Accordingly, the defense argued that the public safety officers should be treated as state actors. Unfortunately, cooperation with the authorities alone does not constitute state action. The mere fact that the police and prosecutors use the results of a private actor’s search does not transform the private action into a state action. Instead, it must be shown that the relationship between the person committing the wrongful acts and the state is such that those acts can be viewed as emanating from the authority of the state. This means that if a college or university forms an actual police department with certified officers who have arrest powers, then the Fourth Amendment should apply to those officers. Likewise, the Fourth Amendment may apply to the public safety department of a public university because the officers would be government employees. Here, however, the officers were not actual police officers or government employees.
Can Campus Safety Officers Search a Dorm Room Without a Warrant?
Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the suppression court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress. The Superior Court found that the University conducted the search on its own terms and in accordance with its own policies aimed at preserving student safety. The public safety department did not act jointly with the police or at the behest of the police in carrying out the search. Additionally, the public safety department had not assumed a governmental function such that it should be subject to the Fourth Amendment because the Radnor Township Police Department still served as the actual police force on university property. The court denied the appeal, and the defendant will not receive a new trial.
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