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Law School Case Brief

Commonwealth v. Neilson - 423 Mass. 75, 666 N.E.2d 984 (1996)

Rule:

The defendant's consent to reasonable searches to enforce the college's health and safety regulations is given, not to police officials, but to the university and the latter cannot fragmentize, share, or delegate it. While the college officials are entitled to conduct a health and safety inspection, they have no authority to consent to or join in a police search for evidence of crime. 

Facts:

After college officials were advised a cat was living in a dormitory suite containing four bedrooms, including defendant’s Eric W. Neilson, they posted notices on the doors that a check would be conducted to ensure the cat was removed. During the check, college officials noticed a light coming from defendant's closet, opened it, and discovered marijuana plants and cultivation materials. They contacted the campus police, who removed the evidence without seeking or possessing a search warrant. Defendant Eric W. Neilson was charged with illegal possession of marijuana and cultivating and distributing marijuana. The trial court granted a motion to suppress the evidence.

Issue:

Did the warrantless search of the dormitory room by the campus police violate the defendant's constitutional rights?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court affirmed the suppression of evidence seized from defendant's dormitory room, as the sole purpose of the search was to confiscate evidence for a criminal proceeding and a warrant was necessary as defendant did not consent to the search and there were no exigent circumstances.  The court affirmed, finding that the warrantless search of defendant's dormitory room by the campus police violated his constitutional rights, and all evidence obtained as a result of the search should be suppressed. Although the college officials' initial search was proper to enforce a reasonable health and safety regulation, the sole purpose of the warrantless entry by the campus police was to confiscate contraband for purposes of a criminal proceeding. A warrant was required as there was no showing of express consent or exigent circumstances.

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