Northeastern Disorientation

Drug Use, the Northeastern Police Department, and You

 · 9 mins read

Contributed by Northeastern Students for Sensible Drug Policy

It’s the summer of your freshman orientation, and the air is swelteringly hot. The climate-controlled ballroom of the Curry Student Center gives respite from the heat as Breakout Sessions converge back into droves of sweaty incoming freshmen. Everyone under the age of thirty is swathed in red and propping up small talk. Orientation leaders flit off to the back of the room as smiling administrators in a menagerie of oxford and pantsuit address the incoming freshman class. The enthusiasm projected at the crowd can be described only as manicured. Your mind drifts; it’s been a draining couple of days.

Your attention is momentarily won over by the bureaucrat at the podium: Drugs. We’re going over the Code of Student Conduct. Possession of Marijuana can result in deferred suspension, and distribution amount can have you expelled. There’s a strike system with alcohol, and possession of booze under the age of 21 carries a maximum penalty of academic probation. There are no age qualifications for weed, but didn’t marijuana get legalized in Massachusetts? Can the NUPD let themselves into my dorm room and expel me for a joint? Can my RA let the police in? What’s salvia?

The aim of this essay is foremost to enumerate the legal rights of the Northeastern University student living in an on-campus dormitory.1 The conclusion offers a brief overview of the inherent dysfunction of the disciplinary apparatus of the university and its various mechanisms.

At the beginning of every fall semester there emerges a trend in Northeastern SSDP meetings. There is a certain demographic of freshman who are  in attendance specifically for one line of questioning to be answered: what is the interplay of authority between the police and my RA? What can they do if they claim to smell weed emanating from my dorm room or decide the noise level is too high?

ResLife, A.K.A. your resident assistant and the resident director, cannot let the police into your dorm.

There are a couple important distinctions to keep in mind when dealing with university authorities. Residing on Northeastern property does not imbue the police with any legal authority extra to the capabilities of a city police officer knocking on an apartment door. ResLife, A.K.A. your resident assistant and the resident director, cannot let the police into your dorm. RAs are authorized by the university (and your contract with it) to swipe themselves into your room if they believe you are in violation of the student code of conduct, but that does not translate to probable cause for the police. The police cannot enter your dorm room without either your explicit consent or a warrant. Your RA’s consent is not your consent. There is one caveat to this: if there is reason to suspect the persons inside may be in danger the police may legally enter. This means that if the occupants of the room are unresponsive and may be having a medical emergency, or there is suspicion of violence, there is legal precedent for ResLife to let law enforcement in.

The smell of marijuana emanating from a residence does not constitute probable cause in the State of Massachusetts. The NUPD cannot enter or search your dorm because they claim to smell marijuana. The same goes for loud noise. The NUPD will lie to you about this. The student organizers of Northeastern SSDP know multiple individuals who have been lied to by campus police about their rights. Some have experienced it firsthand. The Northeastern Police Department, like many of its kind, is foremost an extension of a technology of power.2. That is, it is a tool utilized to assist The University3  in molding “model citizens” and maintaining academic hegemony.

ResLife is capable of entering a dorm room via the housing agreement, but they may not search your belongings and are restricted to visual inspection of a residence.4 It is in the best interest of both ResLife and the NUPD to coerce confessions and illicit materials from the person in question. This proof is much harder for either to obtain than they would like you to believe. Saying no to the NUPD and requiring a warrant for entry combined with cooperation with ResLife after careful curation of a living space will extricate the individual from most situations involving university authorities.

The Huntington News Crime Log for February 20 – 26, 2017, provides a good model for how to effectively deal with the police in a dorm while avoiding potential legal or academic consequences. The following was reported on Sunday, February 26 at 3:51am:

“An NU student reported that there was a lot of noise coming from a room in Hastings Hall. NUPD responded and reported attempting to make contact with the occupants of the room with negative results, and further reported that each time they knocked on the door, one of the occupants would shout, ‘Unless you have a warrant, leave.’ Officers also reported an odor of marijuana in the area. A report was filed.”

As a reminder, possession of up to ten ounces of marijuana by individuals 21 years of age and older is legal in the state of Massachusetts, but possession of marijuana is prohibited unconditionally in the code of student conduct. While enjoying a functionally equivalent legal status (on a state level) as alcohol, violations of the code of student conduct regarding alcohol implement an amnesty system, while marijuana and other substances do not. The code of student conduct lumps all psychoactive substances into two categories, alcohol and “drugs” which include salvia, marijuana, medications prescribed to other individuals, and “other available substances to ‘get high’ or induce a mind-altering state.” Any object deemed drug paraphernalia is also grounds for disciplinary action by the university.

To summarize: The Northeastern University Police Department is not your friend, but like any other bureaucratic apparatus, they can be gamed. Officers will lie to you about your rights, the administration will obfuscate their legal authority, and OPEN, the Office of Prevention and Education at Northeastern, is on the payroll and thus the leash of the university and its interests.5 Finding workarounds for the roadblocks of administrative authority will undoubtedly become a characterizing feature of undergraduate life. The sooner one learns to play the game aggressively and preemptively the easier the next four-to-five years will be. This sounds admittedly sensationalist: fuck the cops is often thrown around with little thought behind it. Then again, for every impulsive fuck the cops there is an equal fuck the cops that may be thoroughly reasoned.

The NUPD is licensed and vested in authority by the commonwealth of Massachusetts, just as is any other police department in Boston. However, via Northeastern’s contract with the Boston Police Department, the officers of the Northeastern University Police Department are paid and employed by the university. Northeastern, in turn, receives its funding from a multitude of sources: student tuition, donors such as Raytheon and ExxonMobil, investors, federal and state grants, and various other sources of operational revenue. To reiterate, the NUPD receive their power from the State, but their funding comes from private entities representing the university. By extension the best interest of the campus police is the best interest of the university, and the best interest of the university in self-preservation and -propagation is that of its income sources.6 Next time you find yourself asking why certain enforced policies are written in a specific way, why disciplinary actions seem arbitrarily harsh or lax, or why Northeastern has been accused of adjusting both policy and curricula to game national rankings, remember to ask what the financial motivation of enforcement is.

[1] The former (and to some degree the latter) will rely heavily on the testimony of Northeastern University Police Detective Joseph Corbett. Detective Corbett spoke extensively on the rights of the student as a citizen and as an undergraduate bound by the code of student conduct during a Students for Sensible Drug Policy Know Your Rights panel held on campus in the fall of 2016. Included on the panel were an American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) representative, Detective Corbett, and a former police officer, now an outspoken opponent of the war on drugs.

[2]  One could broadly refer to this technology of power as discipline. While traditionally the state has branded itself as the sole regulator of disciplinary thought and application, the advent of an assemblage legitimized by the state through licensure that otherwise subsides on university funding and resources is a noticeable deviation from this narrative. The University is not quick to point out this reality.

[3] Referring to the (private)  university system in a broader sense, not necessarily Northeastern in particular.

[4] Paraphrasing a Northeastern alumnus and former SSDP coordinator, it is best to keep any illicit substances and objects in your own containers, i.e. backpacks or shelving that one has brought  themselves. Anecdotally, ResLife has been known to attempt search of desk drawers under the pretense that university property gives a blank cheque for search (it does not). Better safe than sorry.

[5] OPEN and OSCRR representatives stated during a Fall 2016 meeting that disciplinary action for a given code of student conduct violation is determined based on “best practice.” This translates to, more or less, a scapegoat for disproportionate, arbitrarily regulated punishment: if other universities treat drugs a certain way, then Best Practice constitutes doing the same, with no thought to underlying ethical considerations.

[6] Northeastern is a non-profit University, the same as the majority of other large research institutions. This fact should not be conflated with the belief that the university does not make financial decisions on the basis of the self-preservation and expansion of the institution. The term non-profit is by no means equivalent to benevolent.