While you may be new to living without parental supervision when you start college, you’re definitely not uninformed: You know that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects you against unreasonable searches and seizures. If the police ever show up to your door, you’re prepared to tell them to get a warrant before they come back.
What about your roommates? It’s smart to make sure that everybody you live with — whether that’s in a dorm room at your college or in an off-campus rental — knows how cohabitant consent to a police search works.
You don’t have ironclad expectations to privacy when you live with a roommate
Typically, anybody who occupies a dwelling can consent to a search as long as they possess common authority over the area or items to be searched — although a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling did put some restrictions on that privilege.
- If two or more roommates are present when the authorities ask, the police must obtain the consent of all the roommates present before conducting their search.
- Any roommate present can halt the search and oblige the police to get a search warrant — but you cannot stop a search at a distance (for example, through a phone call).
If a roommate does consent to a search of the premises in your absence, the police are supposed to stick to areas where you don’t have a higher expectation of privacy. To further protect yourself, it’s wise to keep your private bedroom door locked. If your room is clearly “off-limits” to your housemates, it’s much more likely to be off-limits to the police without a warrant.
What if a police search led to criminal charges?
It’s normal to experiment a little while you’re in college. If a police search turned up some drugs and you’re currently facing possession charges, don’t let your dreams slip away: Fight back with every legal tactic at your disposal.