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Do college students have privacy rights in their dorm rooms?

If you've got a son or daughter going off to college this fall, you're likely going to caution them, if you haven't already, about avoiding alcohol and drugs and those who use them. Even though underage drinking and drug use can be found on just about every college campus, they're still illegal.

This brings up the issue of privacy on campus. What if the police or college authorities suspect that students are engaged in illegal activity in a dorm room? Do they have the right to enter the room without students' permission?

It depends. Dormitories and other campus housing are owned by the university. However, the agreement that the student signs to live there should specify under what circumstances school officials, campus security or local law enforcement authorities can enter a room. Every agreement is different, so it's essential for both parents and students to understand the limits to their privacy.

When students know their privacy rights, they can assert them. They may be able to refuse to allow a search of a room or to answer questions. However, as in all encounters with law enforcement, it's crucial to be polite and calm while asserting your rights.

It never hurts for students to build good relationships with campus security staff and school officials. These are the people who may decide what to do if they encounter illegal or forbidden activities.

An arrest, and certainly a conviction, for a crime can impact a student's ability to receive financial aid, participate in sports and to continue enrollment at the college. A criminal record, even one involving a minor in possession (MIP) conviction, can follow a student after college and into adult life. That's why it's essential for parents to take seriously any run-ins their students have with the law and get them the legal support they need.