My faith in the system has been somewhat restored
July 9, 2008, 11:05 am
Filed under: Ethics, Journalism

Today the S-R reported (even though the ruling [PDF] was two weeks ago) that an appeals court ruled police patrols in the halls of Washington State University dorms are illegal. This also affects a change WSU made to the law (Washington Administrative Code) that effectively circumvented the Washington state and U.S. constitutions.

In the article, the defense attorney told it how it is:

“You would think that an institution of higher learning would be dedicated to the rule of law,” [Tim] Esser said. “For WSU to think it can rewrite some regulations to get around the Fourth Amendment is bizarre.

I reported on this issue in depth when I was at WSU’s school newspaper, The Daily Evergreen.

Of course, like usual, most of the court proceedings (two students sued the university over the patrols) happened during the summer, when most students — including me — weren’t around. The Whitman County Superior Court sided with the students, citing the WAC but also mentioning possible breaches of the Constitution.

But, as soon as students got back, the WSU Board of Regents, citing student safety concerns, passed an amendment to the WAC to redefine “guests” of dorms. This “emergency rule,” effective for 120 days until a review, excluded public safety officials from the definition of guests, allowing police to patrol dorms on their whim. Patrols immediately restarted.

Many students, of course, didn’t like that. And, as you might expect, we at the Evergreen were voracious to serve as a watchdog of the WSU administration, since it seemed to be expressly breaking the law.

As the administration beat reporter, it was my story to follow. Because so many students were concerned, and constitutional freedoms seemed at stake, I conducted an analysis of the lawsuits, laws and constitutional issues. A factor was talking to the judge who ruled on the lawsuits.

“I’m not basing my decision on that [law],” [Judge David] Frazier said in a May 19 hearing. “I’m basing my decision on the Constitution of the United States of America and the Washington State Constitution, which prohibits unlawful searches and seizures.

Attorneys for WSU didn’t agree and independently determined his ruling was based on the WAC and the Revised Code of Washington. One attorney did tell me, however, that WSU meant to “undo the judge’s interpretation.”

To make permanent the regents’ emergency WAC amendment, the university held public forums as required by law. Few students showed up. However, the university’s Residence Hall Association (a student group) conducted an online survey of more than 500 students, which showed 65 percent of students questioned opposed the police patrols. The survey was not considered as evidence in the public hearings.

Of course, the Board of Regents approved its own amendment to the law and made the change (the definition of “guest”) permanent. Dorm patrols continued, and Washington State University appealed the county Superior Court’s decisions in the lawsuits.

Maybe the university shouldn’t have. Now, the appellate court has sided with the students and has declared dorm patrols illegal at WSU.

The appeals court agreed with Frazier’s “thoughtful” ruling, arguing that “the residents of the sixth-floor share a study area and a bathroom, and they are viewed as a living group independent of residents of other floors. … Because of the intimate nature of activities in the hallway — most remarkably, towel-clad residents navigating the hallways to and from the shared shower facilities — it is reasonable to hold that this area is protected.”

The ruling could have an effect on police patrols through the dorms of the other public institutions in Washington state: the University of Washington, Eastern Washington University, Central Washington University and Western Washington University.

There is (limited) discussion at the S-R’s Huckleberries blog. Of course, there’s the expected former RA who thinks dorm patrols are good because all students get drunk and rape people — no exaggeration there at all </sarcasm>. Then there are citizens who realize constitutional rights are infallible. For example, Sweet & Sour Herb wrote:

I’m surprised that it took that much effort to arrive at a logical solution. If police can’t search a car or home without a warrant, who decided a student didn’t have the same rights as any other tenant in a rented apartment[?]

It’s too bad I couldn’t see this story all the way through as a reporter. Now I’m gone from the Evergreen and not even reporting on civics (I’m in sports). Nevertheless, it’s nice to see the Constitution respected and not have so many people’s lives affected by a legal loophole.


1 Comment so far
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Be careful, you never know what you’ll be reporting on in another two years. Also I was reading through a bunch of these this morning and your writing has improved quite a lot

Comment by Lisa Waananen

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