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Esteban Yanez and Sean McMinn
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University police and Cal Poly University Housing have coordinated to use drug-sniffing dogs in the on-campus residence halls to follow up on suspected drug sales, and University Police Chief George Hughes is hoping to boost their use in the coming months as a general deterrent against drugs in the dorms.

Cal Poly most recently worked with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff in March of this year to bring in one dog and “sweep” the Poly Canyon Village apartments, Hughes said. According to Hughes, police issued one citation for marijuana when the dog came to campus.

Emails obtained through the California Public Records Act show police also tried to bring dogs into the halls on Oct. 17 to “hit as many areas as possible with 3 dogs.” University Police Department (UPD) was not able to, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff spokesperson Tony Cipolla said, because the dogs were already being used that day.

Hughes wrote in an email to University Housing Associate Director Carole Schaffer that the dogs will most likely come to campus in November instead.

University Housing and university police are not alone in their support of using drug-sniffing dogs in random sweeps. When contacted by Mustang News, Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey voiced his support for the tactic.

“As vice president for student affairs, I support the random drug sweeps by the K-9 unit,” he said in a statement. “I am deeply concerned about our students’ health, safety and academic success. I know when students engage in the use of illegal drugs they not only compromise their health, safety and academic success, but that of those who live around them.”

Cal Poly administrators’ support for the practice comes with the backing of the law, said Steve Graham, a criminal defense lawyer in Washington State who frequently represents college students.

Graham, who blogged online two years ago about college students’ rights in on-campus housing, said the practice is legal at California state schools, especially if the dogs stay in hallways where police are already allowed.

Universities are increasing their use of drug-sniffing dogs in residence halls because of concerns about the decriminalization of marijuana, he said.

“It’s something you see more and more of, and it’s really a kind of backlash of the decriminalization of marijuana and medical cannabis movements,” Graham said. “The colleges are really scared marijuana usage will increase on their campus.”

University Housing staff, however, do not explicitly tell residents that dogs could be searching their buildings. By informing students when the dogs could be coming, Hughes said it could defeat the purpose of bringing them in.

“If students know that on a certain date that we are going to have drug dogs here, then obviously they wouldn’t have any drugs on campus,” he said.

In an early October email to Schaffer obtained through the records request, Hughes addressed this communication with on-campus residents: “Someone was under the impression we needed to notify the residents beforehand that they (the dogs) were coming,” Hughes wrote. “This would obviously negate even bringing them if you catch my drift.”

Though the students living on campus don’t know when or where the sweeps will occur, Schaffer said residence hall staff have been working closely with UPD for several years to bring in drug-sniffing dogs.

Schaffer said she was OK with the communication between Housing and students about drug policies in the residence halls.

“I think we are really upfront on what the policies are regarding drugs and alcohol,” Schaffer said. “I’ve been here a number of years, and we have (used drug-sniffing dogs) on and off throughout the years.”

By increasing the use of this tactic randomly, Hughes said he hopes to discourage students from bringing drugs on to campus.

“We use it as a proactive measure to hopefully deter drugs from even being brought on to campus,” Hughes told Mustang News.

In response to an email inquiry from Hughes about past usage of the dogs, Schaffer wrote they have been used “on occasion, to follow up to concerns to possible sales.” This year, however, police want to increase the number of random drug-sniffing dog searches, UPD Cmdr. Brenda Trobaugh said.

The dogs’ purpose on campus varies on a case-by-case basis, Trobaugh said. Sometimes, they are used in specific buildings to follow up on repeated reports of drug activity — other times, they are brought in randomly.

The use of drug-sniffing dogs will likely go up as part of Hughes’ law enforcement strategy this year, Trobaugh said, to “keep campus safe and drug-free.”

Trobaugh said the dogs can smell five types of drugs: marijuana, heroin, opium, cocaine and methamphetamines.

Some students said keeping the sweeps random can be an effective deterrent against on-campus residents bringing illegal drugs into the residence halls.



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What are the first three words you associate with drug-sniffing dogs in University Housing? Graphic by Lynna Suy

“It’s definitely smart to keep it random,” philosophy freshman Kevin Lobb said. “That way people aren’t keeping drugs in the dorms.”

Though rumors are swirling that there have been drug-sniffing dogs in the residence halls this quarter, Schaffer and Hughes both said the dogs have not come this academic year. Even these rumors, however, can help deter students from bringing in drugs.

“I think it’s the best way to keep drugs out of the dorms, because it keeps people on their toes,” anthropology and geography freshman Cole Simmonds said.

When police officers bring in the drug-sniffing dogs, they ensure they are following the law and that students’ rights are fully represented, Hughes and Trobaugh said in separate interviews. Trobaugh said police will not enter a student’s room unless there is reasonable suspicion to do so, which is not automatically granted by a dog stopping at a door.

“We will always protect people’s Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable search and seizure,” Hughes said. “If and when we bring drug dogs on campus grounds, we will make sure we are completely within all federal and state legal mandates.”

Some students, however, are irked by the dogs coming in their homes.

“I don’t appreciate them randomly searching the dorms without telling us,” business administration freshman Maria Brown said.

University Housing officials realize not all students use drugs, and Schaffer said it is the department’s responsibility to provide the best possible environment for those students.

“Some students choose to be a part of that (drug) culture,” Schaffer said. “We have to be sensitive and aware and support the students who are wanting to have an academic experience where that’s not a part of their day-to-day life.”

For the Mustang News editorial board’s take on drug-sniffing dogs, click here.

Cal Poly is not the only college using drug-sniffing dogs. The trend has spread across the nation:

Storify by Kait Freeberg