The Arizona Desert Lamp

The Case of the Mysterious Opening Door

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 31 March 2009

Police at the DoorThis police beat manages to sum up everything I hate about current UA policing policy in under 400 words:

Six people were cited and released for being minors in possession of alcohol March 18 at 12:05 a.m.

Police responded to the La Paz Residence Hall in reference to the odor of marijuana coming from one of the rooms. When officers arrived, they reported that they did not smell marijuana. Instead, they said there was an odor of intoxicants coming from the room. There were also many voices coming from inside the room and they heard a person mention beer pong.

One officer spoke with a woman who was exiting the restroom across the hall. She said that there was no marijuana in the room, but that there was alcohol.

The door to the room was then opened [emphasis added – EML] and the officers saw a table set up with red cups for beer pong. There were 11 people in the room. Police tried to make contact with the person who lived in the room, but she was not there. No one in the room would say who lived there, only that they knew her name and that she had left.

Police checked everyone’s ID in the room. All the people were 18-years-old.

The woman who lived in the room returned a bit later. She told officers they could gather the alcohol from her room. She led them to a handle of vodka that did not have a cap and contained approximately one-fourth of its contents. Near the alcohol there was a white trash bag with more than 20 empty 12-ounce Bud Light cans.

An officer spoke with all of the people in the room. One of the men told officers that he had not been drinking, but that he did have a knife on him that he used for protection while he jogged. He told officers that he believed having a pocket knife was ok. The knife was a four-inch switchblade. Police explained to him that university policy prohibits anyone from having a weapon on campus. The knife was confiscated and placed into safe-keeping.

Six of the people admitted to drinking “two beers” while playing beer pong. They were all cited and released for being minors in possession of alcohol. The resident assistant on duty disposed of the remaining alcohol.

The use of the passive voice is very telling – a quick perusal of the Reefer Review reveals that police beats routinely explain how the officers gained access to the room. To wit:

Police responded to Coronado Residence Hall in reference to marijuana in one of the rooms. When they arrived they immediately detected the odor of marijuana coming from one of the doors. An officer knocked on the door and a man answered. He told the officer he could enter the room.

Again:

Police responded to the Coronado residence hall in reference to the smell of marijuana coming from one of the rooms.

Police made contact with a man inside the room. They informed the man they were there in regards to the smell of marijuana.

The man told officers he does not smoke marijuana and they were welcome to search his room.

And again:

As the RA escorted the officer to the room, police reported that the smell of marijuana was strong in the hallway. When the officer knocked on the door where the smell was coming from, a man inside yelled, “Come on in.” The officer knocked a second time and the resident said, “I said come on in.” Inside the room, the smell of marijuana was very strong.

Getting back to today’s reported incident, it starts with a simple report of marijuana, with a small catch – there’s no marijuana present. Instead, “they said there was an odor of intoxicants coming from the room” – a claim itself rather ludicrous, unless the guests were actively exhaling through the crack at the bottom of the door. Equally important to the officers’ (incidentally, why send multiple officers to check out potential marijuana use?) train of thought is overhearing “a person mention beer pong.” The officer then seeks out a figure of authority, like an RA, who can be trusted to provide a reliable testimony “a woman who was exiting the restroom across the hall,” who attests to the presence of alcohol in the room. How does she know? The police report doesn’t say.

Now, “the door to the room was opened.” This wouldn’t be so striking if it wasn’t such a divergence from previous reports, where it is made plainly obvious that the officer had a right to be in the room. Here, we have no idea how the officers gained access into the room – did they open an unlocked door? Did they identify themselves? Did they even knock, or just wait for someone to head out to the restroom? Even more interesting is the fact that the resident of the room was not present – meaning that unless she previously granted the power to one of the guests, none of them had the right to grant the officers access (if they did indeed do so), thus making the search unconstitutional. To add insult to injury, the officers – who are ostensibly responsible for ensuring the safety of the UA campus – had to confiscate a small knife used for protection while jogging, because of the asinine “Weapon-Free Zone” policy. You can see immediately how this makes the UA’s campus safer.

What can be learned here? Allow me quote my colleague:

Of the 46 arrests and incidents,there are 27 cases in which students had a chance to assert their rights by asking for a warrant. Just once did students resist a search, by refusing to acknowledge an officer’s knock at the door of their dorm room. before admitting police to their rooms or consenting to a further search, but did not do so.

Let this be said loud and clear: you do not have to let an officer into your room, unless that officer has a warrant. In fact, I will go so far as to say that you should not let an officer into your room, even if you’re doing something as innocuous as studying. If you think that the officers could use your help, step outside and let them know: “I’m willing to talk to you, but your department’s past history when it comes to warrantless searches makes me uneasy about letting you into my room.” Time and time again, UAPD (and TPD) officers have punished students with these warrantless searches – don’t let yourself become the next victim.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Rob!

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2 Responses

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  1. Connor Mendenhall said, on 31 March 2009 at 11:01 am

    Even more interesting is the fact that the resident of the room was not present – meaning that unless she previously granted the power to one of the guests, none of them had the right to grant the officers access (if they did indeed do so), thus making the search unconstitutional.

    Sadly, I don’t think this is true. As I understand it, the “smell of intoxicants” is probable cause for a search, and 4th amendment rights in a public dorm have exceptions for student safety–hearing “beer pong” might be enough to make that case. Plus, third parties can consent to a search: “it is enough if the searching officer had a reasonable but mistaken belief that the third party had common authority.” Another reason that everyone should understand their rights.

  2. […] students drink; and as a result, police should be encouraging safe drinking habits, rather than making doors open at the slightest whiff of […]


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