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Monday, December 30, 2013

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit decides one Indiana case today, and it is worth reading

The case is ZACHARY MEDLOCK v. TRUSTEES OF INDIANA UNIVERSITY, et al. (SD Ind., Pratt), an 11-page opinion, written by Judge Posner. It begins:

This is an eye‐opening case, but not because of any legal profundities or political reverberations— rather because of the glimpse it affords into contemporary student and administrative cultures of American universities.

Zachary Medlock was in the spring of 2011 a sophomore at Indiana University’s main campus, in Bloomington, living by choice in a university dormitory. As a condition of being allowed to live there he was required to agree to comply with a long list of rules, one of which was that he allow health and safety inspections of his dorm room by “resident leadership specialists” (we’ll call them “student inspectors”). They are graduate students employed part‐time by the university to assist in dormitory management. Their duties include conducting the inspections. The students whose rooms are to be inspected must be given written notification of the inspection at least 24 hours in advance; Medlock had been given a week’s notice by email and in addition the inspection of the dorm rooms on his floor was announced over the building’s intercom on the day of the inspection. (His failure to use the abundant warning time to clean up his act is one of the mysteries of this case.) The inspectors inspect for violations of prohibitions in the code of conduct for dormitory residents. Those prohibitions are numerous—“from candles to cats” as one of the student inspectors testified—and of course include (illegal) drugs. Medlock does not question that he was subject to these prohibitions as a condition of being allowed to live in a university dormitory, and was subject to being penalized for violating them. Suspension and expulsion are among the authorized penalties.

At about 4 p.m. on the day scheduled for the inspection, one of the student inspectors entered Medlock’s room (Medlock wasn’t there) to inspect it, and upon entering noticed a clear plastic tube lying on the desk. Drawing on the training the university had given him to enable him to conduct a competent inspection, he surmised that the tube contained marijuana. Another student inspector, whom the first one asked to join him in Medlock’s room, concurred. * * *

An Indiana University police officer (defendant Christopher King), summoned by one of the two student inspectors, arrived in Medlock’s room, looked at the tube of marijuana, smelled raw marijuana, and left with the tube. The student inspectors remained, continuing their inspection and noticing burned candles, an ashtray containing ashes, and a rolled‐up blanket at the bottom of the door to the bathroom, presumably intended to keep smoke from wafting into the bathroom (which Medlock shared with another student) while he smoked marijuana in his bedroom. Smoking of any kind is forbidden in the dormitory, as is possessing “open flame materials,” such as candles.

One of the student inspectors noticed that the door to Medlock’s closet was ajar, and peering through the opening he saw what he thought was a large marijuana plant. He summoned officer King, who looked in the closet and found himself face to face with a six‐foot‐high marijuana plant. He left to get a warrant to search the room for drugs and drug paraphernalia but posted another police officer in the room to make sure no one moved or destroyed anything that might be contraband. * * *

The suit is based on 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which authorizes suits against state or local officials who violate federally protected civil rights. The complaint names the university’s trustees as defendants along with the dean of students, the university provost, the two student inspectors who searched Medlock’s room, and officer King. It seeks a mandatory injunction ordering destruction of the record of his expulsion, and damages from the two student inspectors and King. * * *

Indiana University is a public university, owned by the State of Indiana, and the student inspectors and university police are university employees and therefore state actors. (We can’t understand the defendants’ argument, accepted by the district judge, that they were not state actors.) And so they can be sued under section 1983 for violating the Fourth Amendment, held protected against state action by interpretation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But the exclusionary rule—the rule that renders evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment inadmissible in (some) judicial proceedings—is applicable only to criminal proceedings. * * *

So the marijuana and drug paraphernalia seized from Medlock’s room were admissible in the suspension proceeding (which was of course noncriminal)—and for the additional reason that Medlock didn’t object to their admission in that proceeding. The seized items provided compelling evidence of serious violations of the code of conduct. His giant marijuana plant (a small tree, really) was providing him with dealer‐quantity marijuana. And while the criminal charges against him were dropped, this could not have been for lack of evidence. The university’s provost testified that the quantity of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia found in Medlock’s room made her suspect that he was distributing marijuana to other students. * * *

Although as we noted earlier the fruits of the search were admissible for disciplinary purposes even if obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the violation of the amendment (if there was a violation) would entitle him to damages. * * * But there was no violation. Medlock had consented in advance, as a condition of being allowed to live in the dormitory, to have his room searched for contraband and other evidence of violation of the health and safety code. * * *

[This is much more, and then the conclusion]

In short, the case is near frivolous, the decision to sue the two student inspectors offensive, and the most surprising feature of the entire episode is the exceptional lenity with which a state university (in a state that does not allow medicinal, let alone recreational, use of marijuana) treated a brazen violator of its rules of conduct and of the criminal law. But as we noted some years ago, “the danger that without the procedural safeguards deemed appropriate in civil and criminal litigation public universities will engage in an orgy of expulsions is slight. The relation of students to universities is, after all, essentially that of customer to seller.” Osteen v. Henley, supra, 13 F.3d at 226. And if we may judge from the happy ending of the marijuana bust for Medlock, the customer is indeed always right. AFFIRMED.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 30, 2013 05:09 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions