By Marcia Moore
The Daily Item
WILLIAMSPORT — A former Susquehanna University student is challenging the January 2012 search of his dorm room that led to Selinsgrove police filing criminal drug charges against him.
Joseph E. Smith, 24, of Floral Park, N.Y., alleges in a complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. Middle District Court that the search of his room in Scholar’s House dormitory violated his constitutional rights.
According to the suit, a university safety officer went to the housing unit on Jan. 23, 2012, to check on a suspicious odor believed to be marijuana. No one answered the door to Smith’s room, but the following day, after receiving additional information, the officer decided to conduct a search, the complaint states.
Smith contends that search violated the school’s policy that states searches may be conducted if there is reasonable cause to believe a student is using his or her room to violate the law or university regulations. When security officers Scott A. Moyer and Curt Brown went to the room, they did not observe any suspicious odors or activity but forced their way into the room telling Smith they would be conducting a search, the complaint alleges.
Smith did not consent to the search, and the officers did not have a search warrant, the document states. Items seized included drugs and drug paraphernalia that are the basis of felony and misdemeanor criminal charges pending in Snyder County Court.
Smith claims the university policy encourages its employees to violate the rights of students to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
University spokesman Angela Burrows said she had not seen the civil complaint as of Thursday afternoon and declined comment.
“Typically, the university doesn’t comment on a pending lawsuit,” she said.
Smith’s suit seeks a court declaration that his constitutional rights were violated and unspecified damages. Besides the university, Moyer and Brown, Thomas A. Rambo, director of public safety, also is a defendant because he allegedly assisted with the search.
Local authorities have a different version of events.
According to the criminal complaint filed by Selinsgrove borough police shortly after the incident, Smith was alone in his room when campus security officers arrived to investigate a suspicious odor and he allowed them inside.
Once the officers were in his room, according to court records, Smith asked permission to use the bathroom and then fled.
Drugs allegedly found in the room included four mason jars containing 48 grams of marijuana as well as cocaine, methamphetamine, psychedelic mushroom and prescription pills.
Criminal charges were filed, but Smith failed to appear at a hearing in district court several months later. A warrant for his arrest was issued in November, and he was returned to the Valley in March 2013 after waiving extradition from New York.
Smith was arraigned in district court on felony and misdemeanor drug charges and released to await trial after posting $200,000 bail.
In July, Smith was arrested again in Southampton, N.Y., for allegedly possessing cocaine.
Snyder County District Attorney Michael Piecuch said Smith’s civil suit won’t affect his criminal case in Snyder County, but added, “It certainly shows his mind-set.”