By Fleming Smith (Junior Editor)
Last semester, rumors quickly spread on social media that “drug dogs” were on campus, prompting panic among some students. However, these K9 Units are nothing new to law enforcement at Sewanee, and the right to privacy inside students’ dorm rooms is federally protected in this situation.
The Fourth Amendment stipulates that any citizen of the United States cannot be subjected to “unreasonable search and seizure” by a state official. Any non-Sewanee authority, such as a Franklin County police officer, must respect that right, although Sewanee officers and Residential Staff are not required to follow the Fourth Amendment because of the school’s status as a private university.
K9 Units, which include the dog and its handler, have come to Sewanee from Chattanooga, Winchester, the Air Force Base, and Franklin County, among other sources.
“It’s part of our mutual aid agreement with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department. It’s done by our request,” said Chief Marie Eldridge of the Sewanee Police Department. Officers from other departments do not conduct K9 searches at Sewanee unless asked by Sewanee PD first.
Eldridge noted that the Sewanee PD also uses K9 units for tracking missing persons or sniffing out incendiary devices such as explosives that could be harmful to the public.
“We’ve used them on and off for years,” she explained. Eldridge remembers the use of K9 Units on campus since the days she patrolled as an officer.
Johnny Hughes, Sewanee’s postal coordinator at the Student Post Office, recalls a search from more than a decade ago. “About 10 years ago, they came through and had gotten specific tips,” Hughes said.
The most recent search at the SPO occurred last spring, which many students witnessed.
“They just sort of came over and said, ‘we want to go through your office.’ We just try to cooperate with them,” explained Hughes. “We weren’t given a particular reason for why they wanted to do it. It could have been done at a different time—they did it during business hours. If there’s a dog going through packages, it’s not going to be a secret for long.”
To his knowledge, no illegal materials have been found in the SPO.
This semester, a noticeable increase in marijuana violations has encouraged police enforcement to find successful methods to counteract this rise.
“We are taking a very proactive approach to deter drugs on our campus, and the use of canines is part of that approach. There are a lot of students who don’t want these drugs on campus, and our partnership with them is so important to our job,” Eldridge said.
Sergeant Seth Isbell of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office spoke to The Purple about his own work as a handler with his K9 named Coca.
“We read the dogs through body language. Their tail will change, if it’s hot out they’ll close their mouth and look like they’re concentrating, and their breathing changes. Our dogs are passive-alert, so they sit down,” said Isbell.
In the past year, Isbell and Coca have been called to search Sewanee dorms and houses, but most commonly vehicles.
“Cars are the most common [searches],” Isbell explained. Coca will alert him to a suspicious smell in a vehicle, and he will bring her to the passenger side while he does a quick run-around the car to check it out. Legally, he would not be able to touch the car at this point.
He hopes that students will not feel paranoid about the presence of K9 Units on campus. Remembering the student panic from last spring, Isbell said good-naturedly, “We were actually getting a good laugh at it!”
Within the last year, Isbell produced four reports of his visits to Sewanee, and he believes the other handler in the department did not visit Sewanee in the last year. However, this does not represent the activities of any other departments working with the Sewanee PD.
In February of 2016, Isbell conducted a search of a rental home, the Italian House, and Gorgas and Smith Halls. The only substance found was a gram of marijuana in Smith Hall, discovered after consent was given to search a dorm room, along with a package found in a different room deemed suspicious by the officers. Additionally, a resident of the rental home cooperated with the police and willingly gave a grinder from his possession.
While these K9 Units can freely search common areas and open spaces, they cannot enter or search private rooms—including dorm rooms—without the consent of a student or a search warrant from the police, according to Isbell. Unless officers receive a written or verbal confirmation that a student accepts police searching his or her room, the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibits state officers from “unreasonable search and seizure.” Often, police officers will give students a form to fill out to make sure there is no confusion.
“It’s very restricted in what we can do,” Isbell confirmed.
Once a student gives permission, officers can check all areas inside the room. Unlike a standard room check by Residential Staff, these K9 searches can occur at any time and students will not receive advance notice. K9 Units are an “on-and-off” presence that is likely to continue for some time, especially in light of rising drug violations. However, the choice to cooperate with the police remains within a student’s hands.