Warrantless search of dorm hallway unlawful absent consent; residents have reasonable expectation of privacy in floor hallway

State v. Houvener, Washington Court of Appeals, Division III, filed June 26, 2008.

Around 5:45 AM on February 11, 2006, campus police responded to a reported burglary on the third floor of a dormitory complex on the campus of Washington State University. The officer learned that the resident’s laptop computer and acoustic guitar had been stolen. Campus police initiated a search of the dormitory complex. Campus police started on the top of the complex, either the 12th or 13th floor, and walked the halls, eventually reaching the 6th floor.

Mr. Houvener and another person were in Mr. Houvener’s room on the 6th floor and the campus police heard voices and music which seemed suspicious around 6 AM. The police listened at the threshold and heard someone say he was paranoid they were going to be caught and a second voice say he didn’t think the victim would call the cops. The campus police officer put his finger over the peephole and tried a ruse to gain entry.  The residents ignored the ruse until the officer identified himself as a police officer and ordered them to open the door. Mr. Houvener opened the door. The officer, dressed in his police uniform and armed, asked Mr. Houvener to step into the hallway and down the hall with him. Mr. Houvener complied. Campus police asked Mr. Houvener questions and he made incriminating statements that some of the items in the room didn’t belong to him.

The other person in his room also made incriminating statements. Both suspects were not provided Miranda warnings. Mr. Houvener was arrested, Mirandized, and was asked to retrieve the stolen items from his room, which he did. Mr. Houvener was not provided with Ferrier warnings prior to the search.

The Court found that the police did not have permission from Mr. Houvener or anyone other resident on the 6th floor to enter and search the 6th floor. The Court found that Mr. Houvener shared a bathroom and study lounge with other residents of the 6th floor, that each floor was limited to one sex, and that persons cannot access any of the floors unless he or she is a resident with a special pass key or is escorted by a resident. The Washington State University housing authorities had issued passkeys to the campus police. The police conducted walk-through inspections of the dorm hallways without having been invited or without receiving consent. These walk-throughs occasionally uncover evidence of criminal activity, i.e. minor drinking, smoking marijuana, which leaded to further investigation and warrantless searches and/or arrests.

The Court held that Mr. Houvener had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the hallway of the dormitory that he shared with his 6th floor residents. The Court found that the intimate spaces, close quarters, shared bathrooms, and study areas differentiated the dormitory hallway area from their status as tenants in an apartment building.

The Court held that the police were not lawfully present in the student resident’s sixth floor living area because the police did not have a warrant and did not have consent from a 6th floor resident. The Court held that Mr. Houvener did not consent to the police search and the victim’s consent as the victim was a member of a different living group was not valid over the 6th floor hallway where Mr. Houvener lived.