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Commonwealth v. Copney: Does a Murder Suspect Have a Constitutional Right to Privacy in His Harvard Girlfriend’s Dormitory Room?

by Richard Fossey - December 21, 2014

From the perspective of the higher education community, Massachusetts' highest court made a good decision when it ruled that a murder suspect had no constitutional right to privacy in his Harvard girlfriend's dorm room that would prohibit police from searching the room without a warrant.

College students have a constitutional right to privacy in their dormitory rooms, and police cannot search a student’s dorm room without a warrant (Piazzola v. Watkins, 1971). Of course, college personnel do not need a warrant when they inspect students’ dormitory rooms for health and safety reason or to enforce reasonable university rules (Medlock v. Trustees of Indiana University, 2013), but the police must obtain a warrant if they enter a student’s dorm room as part of a criminal investigation unless the student voluntarily consents to a room search (Commonwealth v. Carr, 2010).

But what about nonstudents who spend the night in a dorm room as the guest of a dorm-room resident? Do such guests also have a constitutional right to privacy that would prevent police from using evidence against them if the police search the dorm room without a warrant and discover incriminating evidence?

A recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court gave its answer to that question in a shocking case of a murder that took place in the basement of a Harvard residential hall (Commonwealth v. Copney, 2014). The court’s decision is important to the higher education community not only for its legal ruling but also for the policy questions the case raises about how restrictive a university should be regarding overnight guests in dormitory rooms occupied by students.


Brittany Smith, an undergraduate at Harvard University, resided in Lowell House, one of Harvard’s undergraduate dormitories. Her boyfriend, Jabrai Jordan Copney, a songwriter from New York City, frequently spent nights in Brittany’s dorm room as Brittany’s guest.

In May 2009, Copney made plans to rob Justin Cosby, a local drug dealer who was known to sell marijuana to Harvard students. Copney told Cosby that he wanted to buy three pounds of marijuana, and the two agreed to meet in the basement of Kirkland Hall, another Harvard dormitory. Copney planned to steal the marijuana from Cosby (Commonwealth v. Copney, pp. 406-407).

When the meeting took place, Copney was accompanied by two companions: Blayn Jiggetts and Jason Aquino. According to the Massachusetts court’s rendition of the facts, Jiggetts pulled out a gun and demanded that Cosby turn over the marijuana. Cosby refused to give it up, and Jiggetts gave the gun to Copney. Cosby started running, and Copney fired three shots. One bullet hit Cosby, but he managed to make his way to nearby Dunster Street, where he collapsed. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he later died of a bullet wound (p. 407).

Copney, Jiggetts, and Aquino ran from Kirkland Hall, but they did not get away undetected. Witnesses said they heard three loud bangs and then saw three men running out of Kirkland Hall. According to witnesses, one of the men was wearing an orange and black varsity jacket.

After the shooting, Copney went to Brittany’s room and told Brittany to dispose of the gun. She wrapped it in some clothing and hid it in a friend’s nearby dormitory room (p. 407). Copney and Brittany then took a train to New York City, accompanied by Jiggetts and Aquino.

It did not take police long to focus their investigation on Brittany Smith. Police examined the deceased drug dealer’s cell phone and discovered that he had called Brittany’s cell phone shortly before the shooting. In addition, they quickly determined that Brittany’s ID card had been used to gain access to three locked doors at Kirkland Hall about the time of the robbery. Not surprisingly, the police wanted to talk with Brittany, but she did not return phone calls and she didn’t answer the door when police came to visit.

Fearing (so they said) for Brittany’s well-being, state and local police officers entered Brittany’s dorm room without a warrant. Brittany wasn’t present, but the officers saw a black and orange varsity jacket that looked similar to the description of a jacket given by witnesses who saw three men running from Kirkland Hall. Police posted a guard at Brittany’s dorm-room door and went to obtain a warrant to seize the jacket. In due time, Copney was arrested (p. 408).

In 2011, Copney stood trial for murder. Over his objection, the orange and black varsity jacket was admitted into evidence along with evidence that Copney had robbed a drug dealer at Yale University six months before the Harvard shooting (p. 411).

At the end of a jury trial, Copney was sentenced to life in prison for murder (Zauzmer, 2011). Jiggetts and Aquino both pled guilty to manslaughter, and Brittany was sentenced to three years in prison for being an accessory after the fact to assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (Yu, 2011).

But this was not the end of the story. Denise Cosby, Justin Cosby’s mother, sued Harvard University and three Harvard housing officials for wrongful death, arguing that Justin would not have been murdered if Harvard had not allowed Copney to live in Brittany’s dorm room. Justin’s mother alleged that Copney lived in Brittany’s room for months in violation of Harvard housing rules and that Harvard housing employees knew or should have known about the violation. “The only reason this became a situation is because of [Harvard’s] negligence,” Denise Cosby’s attorney said (Clarida, 2013).


Copney appealed his murder conviction, but in the summer of 2014, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected his appeal. The court dismissed Copney’s argument that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in Brittany Smith’s dormitory room and that the police should not have entered it without a warrant. “[Copney’s] rights in the dormitory room were less than Smith's rights in the room,” the court ruled; and Brittany’s right to allow Copney to live in the room depended upon getting Harvard’s permission, which she did not obtain (p. 410). In addition, the court pointed out, Brittany “had no right to allow [Copney] to use her pass key to gain access to university property that was not accessible to the general public” (p. 410). In fact, Copney’s use of Brittany’s pass key “was expressly prohibited by Harvard’s written policies.” In short, the court ruled, “Where the owner of the premises, Harvard, specifically forbade the type of use and occupancy involved, [Copney] may not claim that his subjective expectation of privacy was objectively reasonable” (p. 410).

In any event, the court continued, even if he did have a reasonable expectation of privacy in Brittany Smith’s dormitory room because he had been Brittany’s “long-term overnight guest” at Lowell House, he abandoned that right when he left for New York City on the night that Cosby was shot. “[Copney’s] departure from Massachusetts was abrupt,” the court observed, “and he manifested no intent to return to Massachusetts” (p. 410).

Finally, the court noted, even if Copney had an expectation of privacy in Brittany’s dormitory room that society would be willing to recognize, the police were justified in entering the room without a warrant under the “emergency aid exception” to the warrant rule (p. 410). Under the facts of the case, police may have reasonably believed that Brittany could be in danger. Efforts to contact Brittany had been unsuccessful, the court observed, and police may have concluded that she had been injured or was in immediate need of aid. In such circumstances, the police were entitled to enter Brittany’s room without a warrant.

Nor, in the Massachusetts appellate court’s opinion, had the trial court erred when it admitted evidence indicating that Copney had robbed a drug dealer at Yale prior to the Harvard robbery. The evidence was not admitted, the court ruled, to show that Copney had attempted to rob Cosby in Harvard’s Kirkland Hall, only to establish Copney’s “modus operandi, [his] intent and the absence of mistake” (p. 414).


Denise Cosby’s wrongful death suit against Harvard was no more successful than Copney’s appeal. In early 2013, a Massachusetts trial court dismissed her case. “There is nothing inherent in knowingly or negligently allowing a Harvard student to permit her boyfriend to stay in her room such that a reasonable person would expect visitors to the University would be protected from the foreseeable deadly conduct of the room guest,” the court wrote in a rather convoluted sentence (Clarida, 2013). Plainly put, Harvard owed no legal duty to Cosby simply because Copney may have resided in a Harvard dorm room for several months in violation of Harvard’s housing policy.


From the perspective of the higher education community, the Copney ruling is a good one. Although the decision is only binding in Massachusetts, courts in other jurisdictions would probably agree with Massachusetts’ highest court that a nonstudent who lives in a campus dormitory in violation of university housing rules has no constitutional expectation of privacy in that room and that police act lawfully when they enter a dorm room without a warrant if they reasonably believe someone in the room might be injured or in need of aid. And most courts would probably agree with the Massachusetts trial court that ruled that a university has no legal duty to a murder victim simply because the murderer happened to live in a university dorm room without the university’s permission.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask whether Harvard did Brittany Smith a disservice when it knowingly or unknowingly allowed her boyfriend to live as a long-term guest in Brittany’s dorm room. After all, the housing rules for Lowell House, where Brittany lived, acknowledge that nonstudent guests might make dorm residents uncomfortable and that Lowell House “is academic housing, and, as such, should never be considered an apartment or hotel” (Lowell House Rules, 2014).

The old legal doctrine of in loco parentis is dead, of course (Bradshaw v. Rawlings, 1979). Universities are no longer expected to assume a parental role over their adult students. But Brittany’s life might have developed in a different and much more positive way if some Harvard housing official had noticed that she had a long-term nonstudent guest living with her in Lowell House and had insisted that Mr. Copney find lodging elsewhere.


Bradshaw v. Rawlings, 612 F.2d 135 (3rd Cir. 1979).

Clarida, Matthew Q.  (2013, January 15).Cosby Wrongful Death Suit Against Harvard Dismissed. Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/1/15/wrongful-death-dismissed-cosby/

Commonwealth v. Carr, 936 N.E.2d 883 (Mass. 2010).

Commonwealth v. Copney, 4 11 N.E.3d 77 (Mass. 2014).

Lowell House Rules (2014). Retrieved from http://www.lowell.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k69091&pageid=icb.page350203

Piazzola v. Watkins, 442 F.2d 284 (5th Cir. 1971).

Medlock v. Trustees of Indiana University, 738 F.3d 867 (7th Cir. 2013).

Yu, X. (2011, September 30). Ex-Harvard student Brittany Smith sentenced to three years in prison. Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/9/30/brittany-smith-harvard-shooting-sentenced/

Zauzmer, J. M.  (2011, April 22). Jabrai Jordan Copney gets life in prison for shooting at Harvard’s Kirkland House. Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/4/22/murder-copney-firstdegree-jury-murder-guilty-harvard-shooting/

Zauzmer. J. M. (2011, December 14). Last Kirkland shooting defendant sentenced to 9 to 12 years. Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/12/14/jiggetts-sentenced-kirkland-shooting/

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 21, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17797, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:25:15 AM

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