March 30, 2011

Judicial Board Finds Cornell Police Improperly Searched Student for Marijuana

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Correction appended

A student caught with marijuana successfully challenged Cornell University Police Department’s right to search the student, according to a one-page public record of the University Hearing Board case issued earlier this month.

Due to confidentiality restrictions in the Campus Code of Conduct, no individual can comment on the case, and the only details available to the public are listed in the one-page public record.

According to the public record, the CUPD officer issued citations for unlawful possession to two students seen smoking marijuana. The officer then saw the accused student in the same outdoor location on campus as the two previous students. Though the officer did not see the accused student smoking marijuana, the officer searched the student for possession of drugs. Upon finding marijuana on the student’s person, the CUPD officer issued the student a citation for unlawful possession.The student challenged the citation in front of the UHB on the grounds of unlawful search and seizure, and the UHB voted in favor of the student.“[We] try and provide a more uniform approach to law enforcement and raise it to a standard that both protects public interest and public safety as well as allowing the police to operate within a reasonable amount of authority,” CUPD Chief Kathy Zoner said, adding that in instances of search and seizure, CUPD ensures that its officers are compliant with the Fourth Amendment and relevant search and seizure case law.As a private institution, Cornell’s Code of Conduct is the primary authority on legal issues on campus for the Judicial Administrator’s office, according to Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88.The Code lacks any mention of search and seizure policies. The Code does mention other freedoms enumerated in the Constitutional amendments, such as the freedom of speech.According to Prof. Brian Chabot, ecology and evolutionary biology, chair of the UHB, the fact that the Code does not mention search and seizure does not pose any problems.“There are federal and state laws which supersede the Code anyway,” Chabot said. He noted that the Code has to be consistent with those laws.Chief Zoner echoed this sentiment in explaining CUPD’s standards for search and seizure.“We use the U.S. Constitution as our mainstay and keep current on case law,” Zoner said. “[CUPD trains] our officers regularly on our policies that we develop and educates them on any changes that might come forward due to new case law.”Each division within the University has its own search and seizure policy that it abides by, Grant said. For example, when students sign up for a meal plan, they agree to the right to be searched if they do not follow Cornell Dining policies, according to Gain Finan, director of Cornell Dining.“Campus Life reserves the right to inspect any packages, coats, bags, purses, et cetera, brought into the dining areas. All inspections will be done in a reasonable manner (as determined by Campus Life) and in compliance with all applicable Cornell policies,” Finan stated in an email.In reference to the case last semester, Chabot emphasized the uniqueness of the challenge raised in the case.“There has been only one case in my experience where there was a challenge based on the federal search and seizure guidelines. I don’t think that the J.A. has seen such challenges previously, either,” Chabot said. “Even though the laws governing search practices are quite controversial, Cornell Police appear to me to be well schooled about appropriate search processes. Challenges have been and probably will be very rare events.”The final paragraph of the public record of the case summarizes Chabot’s memo, which says that this particular case should not be used as precedent.Grant reiterated that challenges such as these need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.“We want to make sure that people are being fair and reasonable,” Grant said in regard to what the J.A.’s office looks for in challenges of search and seizure. “Every case needs to be decided on its own merits.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Brian Chabot, chair of the University Hearing Board, as a law professor. In fact, he is a professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department.

Original Author: Seth Shapiro