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Know your rights: What Northwestern students can do when dealing with police

Instead of a ticket for a fake ID or for public urination, one Medill junior received a citation earlier this year from University Police for emitting “a heavy sigh.”

The student, who asked to remain anonymous due to “ongoing disciplinary procedures,” said he and a group of friends were walking down Sherman Avenue, speaking at a normal volume, when they passed two  UP officers. The student said the officers forcefully told the group to quiet down.

“I sighed in exasperation, and the sigh was probably lower than the level that I had previously been talking,” he said.

The student said he was issued a ticket for about $75 for violating an Evanston noise ordinance and was called in to the Office of Judicial Affairs. He said he contested the fine and won his case, which caused Judicial Affairs to drop the matter.

“It borders on the police state when you are literally ticketing someone for voicing an emotional guttural sound,” the student said.

UP Deputy Chief Dan McAleer said he was not aware of the incident but thought it was not indicative of the relationship between students and police.

The junior said his sigh was not just about the particular situation but also his long history of argumentative encounters with UP. Several other students said they had experienced similar antagonism in their interactions with campus police. Some of this bad feeling comes from hazy and uncertain expectations of students’ rights and responsibilities in interaction with the police on and off campus, they said.

“I wish I knew more about my rights,” McCormick junior Michael Weiss said. “I don’t know how much of what (campus police) do is moral or follows police code.”

Steven Silverman, founder of Flex Your Rights, an organization that produces media about constitutional rights in police situations, said such uncertainty is what he aims to eradicate.

“The information is for everybody, but primarily young people seem to be most in need of this information, as young people are disproportionately stopped and searched by police,” he said.

Silverman said students should be wary of “cooperating” with campus and municipal police, in that they are likely to incriminate themselves unintentionally and avoidably.

Though perhaps uncooperative, students should always remain courteous and calm.


Silverman said many students are unaware of their choices when a police officer knocks on their dormitory doors. He said policies vary from campus to campus.

“When you’re in campus housing, its almost like you’re living in your parents’ house, and they can agree to let the police into your house,” Silverman said. “In a college dorm, students do have a lessened expectation of privacy than they would if they owned their own home.”

In some housing contracts, universities reserve the right to search rooms or let the police search them, he said.

McAleer said this is not the case at NU. He said police cannot enter a dorm room without being let in by the student.

“If they want to enter, they either have to have a warrant or they have to have special permission from you,” he said. “You retain your constitutional rights as a Northwestern student, the same as any other citizen.”

Silverman said students often give police permission to enter inadvertently. Officers do not need to phrase the question as if the student has a choice so they are able to perform searches with the student’s permission. He said police often accomplish this by saying something along the lines of, “Do you mind if we take a look? You don’t have anything to hide.” In this manner, the searches that occur in residence halls are often consent searches, even if students feel pressured to comply.

The anonymous junior said an unpleasant interaction with UP in Bobb Hall his freshman year left him feeling intimidated.

The police were in the building looking for a student in a red shirt who had allegedly run out of a cab into the residence hall without paying. The student and his friends, one of whom was wearing a red shirt, were in a room drinking so they did not want to let police in when officers knocked on the door. After moving the alcohol out of sight, the students opened the door and let the officers in. The student said the officers were acting “intimidating,” asking where they had been that night and not accepting the answer, “On campus.”

“Basically that’s their tactic,” he said. “Being really rude and unprofessional to the point where you think you’re going to be arrested because you disagree with what they’re saying.”

He said the police told the student in the red shirt they were going to arrest him and brought up the possibility of searching his room.

“The (Community Service Officer) came up and was like, ‘Uh, no. This is not the guy.’ Without any apology or without any sort of anything, they just kind of departed.”

McAleer said he did not know about the specific incident to which the anonymous junior was referring, but added that police need to act on whatever information they have.

“The description may have been similar to such a point that we needed to further investigate,” he said. “It’s not always easy, and sometimes we’re going to make a mistake. It’s not our intention. It’s hard for me to comment on whether we were in the wrong or not. It’s a two-year-old story. Two-year-old stories may or may not stay true.”

Silverman said students should not feel pressured to immediately allow police into their rooms.

“If you’re a student in a situation where you don’t even want to open the door, don’t,” he said.

Once the student is ready to open the door, he or she should go outside and speak with the officer courteously, Silverman said. He said police are allowed to imply they have the right to enter, even if they do not.

Students can politely refuse any requests to enter, he said.

“You must be prepared to say, ‘Officer, I know you’re just doing your job, but I do not consent to any searches of myself or my dorm room,’” Silverman said.

The problem with pot

The caveat is that police may enter a residence without a warrant or permission in the presence of “exigent circumstances,” or the potential for immediate danger, said Richard Dvorak, a lawyer for the Chicago-based firm Dvorak, Toppel and Barrido.

Dvorak, whose firm focuses on criminal defense and civil rights, said there is no clear-cut definition for these cases.

“The courts look to numerous factors to determine exigent circumstances,” Dvorak said.

Silverman said students need to be especially wary of the dangers of smoking marijuana in a residence hall, since the smell of something burning, cannabis or otherwise, can be construed as an emergency.

He said his advice would be to go outside, close the door and reply to questions about the smell of marijuana by saying, “I don’t smell anything, officer, and I don’t consent to searches.”

“It’s important to appreciate how much you are putting yourself at risk if you’re smoking,” he said.

Across Sheridan

Outside the boundaries of NU’s campus, UP has jurisdiction from Lake Street to the south, Evanston’s border to the north and Ridge  Avenue to the west, McAleer said. They can also have police power in any other part of the city at the request of the Evanston Police Department.

EPD Cmdr. Tom Guenther said the two departments work together.

“If there’s a case that’s a high-profile case that the University might ask for our assistance in, we offer that assistance to them,” he said.

The two departments also collaborate in their weekend patrols in areas of dense NU population, he said. In the warmer months, a “party car,” in which police from both departments ride, will respond to calls about NU parties, as well as patrol for potential illegal activity.

Silverman said students who live off campus can expect more privacy than those living in dormitories, but in situations of off-campus parties, students should closely monitor who enters their houses.

“If police are knocking at your door, they need to have a search warrant to enter unless you or a friend or a party-goer invites them into the house,” Silverman said. “A smart renter will always have someone out front who is responsible and attentive and who is keeping a close eye on who is coming in and leaving.”

Evanston police will enter a student residence if they can see legal violations from the front door, EPD Chief Richard Eddington said.

“If (the officer) sees people of tender years consuming what appears to be an alcoholic beverage, we’re coming in,” he said. “Also, if we’re bowled over by a wave of smoke that has the unique odor of burning cannabis.”

Eddington said police will usually ask first to enter when they smell marijuana.

“If we’re both hacking up lungs because there’s so much burnt cannabis in the air, I’m still going to be polite and ask if I can go in, but I know what the outcome’s going to be,” he said.

Both Evanston and NU police said in most cases they issue a warning for a noise violation from outside the house and then do not have to come back. Unless it is a house where they have already issued several citations, they will not give a ticket.

McAleer said the situations in which police would enter an off-campus residence are “not absolute every time.”

“You open up the door, and you’re not the lease-holder, and there’s somebody passed out in front of the door; now the police officer has a right to enter because someone’s in danger,” he said.


The anonymous junior said he would much rather interact with EPD than UP because Evanston police will not refer students directly to student affairs.

“Even though you’re off campus, you can get in trouble for things with the University,” he said. “Basically the University has extended its disciplinary jurisdiction all the way from Allison Hall to the furthest place on Ridge because of the NUPD.”

McAleer said every incident report UP writes is also given to the Office of Student Affairs, which makes decisions about further disciplinary action.

Because of this shared information, even if students do not get in legal trouble, they can still face serious consequences from their university, Silverman said.

“These universities have an extra-judicial system where they have additional penalties that exist outside of criminal law,” Silverman said. “They have extra-judicial boards that wield tremendous power.”

A similar system could be the same in any workplace, said Michael Helfand, a Chicago lawyer.

Helfand, who runs the Web-based referral service, said all records of arrests and citations are public information. Just as an employer could fire someone for breaking the law outside the workplace, a university can discipline students for doing the same.

“The difference between the Evanston police and the University Police is who signs their paychecks,” Helfand said. “(NU is) never going to know about it unless someone brings it to their attention. On the flip side, University Police has the motivation to tell them because that’s part of their job.”

Eddington said UP has access to all of Evanston’s incident reports so the information is already shared with the University.

Though students may be less likely to be punished by the University if they are cited by

Evanston police, Eddington said EPD often contacts landlords when there are problems with student residences.

“We’ll try to contact that landlord if we see a problem develop or a series of calls,” he said.

Off-campus residences can also be designated “nuisance premises” by the city if they cause persistent problems. Eddington said there are currently about two nuisance premises among NU student housing.

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “The fines go up exponentially.”

Helfand said students should make sure they are not in trouble with the law before making sure they are not in trouble with the University.

“The University could have separate disciplinary policies where the right to remain silent doesn’t apply,” he said “But first things first: Take care of any criminal matters.”

By Ali Elkin

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