Iowa City, IA – A University of Iowa (UI) police officer was reinstated Dec. 1 after he claimed he was wrongfully terminated just before his deployment with the Air National Guard.
UI Police Officer Jeff Williams was terminated in May of 2018 for an “illegal dorm search” just days before he was deployed with his military unit, The Gazette reported.
The incident occurred on April 14, 2018 when Officer Williams responded to Catlett Residence Hall for a reported smell of marijuana in the hallway.
When Officer Williams arrived, he learned that the residence hall staff had already entered an unoccupied room and found contraband items, The Gazette reported.
“They tried to make contact with anyone in the room, and no one answered the door, so they keyed in to the room and found items of paraphernalia and alcohol and things like that and they took those items and moved them to the center of the room,” the officer testified.
Officer Williams said he didn’t believe that he could press charges because, when he was field-trained by the university in 2016, he was told that a judge had found that dorm staff are considered “agents of the state” and their entrance into a room without consent constituted an illegal search, The Gazette reported.
But despite that, the officer went into the room and conducted a further search which revealed a butane canister and a lighter.
“Honestly, it was rather concerning to me that the entire floor of a brand-new dorm building reeked of marijuana,” Officer Williams testified. “I don’t know if they’re bound to start fire or anything like that. There are thousands of kids who live in that building, and it was just a huge safety concern to me.”
He said he removed those items under a “community caretaker exception” to the Fourth Amendment, although his bodycam footage showed he never mentioned that he was doing that at the time, The Gazette reported.
Court documents showed that Officer Williams had mentioned his upcoming deployment as a justification for the search and that was captured by his bodycam.
“I leave for deployment in a few days so if they want to throw a fit over me, then they have to wait a while to deal with it,” Officer Williams said, according to The Gazette.
The university claimed that the officer had “intentionally violated” students’ rights.
“Officer Williams had no intention of obtaining the necessary search warrant because it would require too much work,” University of Iowa said in a summary of the termination decision, according to The Gazette.
That summary also referenced Officer Williams’ comment “I just don’t want to have to come back” that was recorded by his bodycam at the scene.
Officer Williams said he didn’t ever intend to try to get a search warrant because of what he had been told during training about his inability to charge after dorm staff had already intervened, The Gazette reported.
IU officials wouldn’t respond to questions about whether they tell officers in training that students cannot be charged if a dorm staff member has already entered the room and found illegal substances.
They referred The Gazette to a policy that said resident advisors must knock, get permission to enter, and then “not touch anything” when responding to the smell of marijuana in a dorm room.
“If a resident is not present, you cannot check their personal belongings,” the policy said in all caps.
After he was fired, Officer Williams filed a grievance through his union and filed a lawsuit against the university that alleged they had violated his rights as a U.S. military veteran, The Gazette reported.
The lawsuit said University of Iowa had terminated the officer without due notice, a statement of charges or fact, or a “full and complete” hearing on the allegations.
The university clapped back with their own statement that said Officer Williams’ termination had nothing to do with his military service, The Gazette reported.
“The University of Iowa terminated Jeff Williams following an investigation that resulted in a founded complaint of an improper search and seizure and additional violations of departmental standards of conduct,” UI Spokeswoman Anne Bassett said. “It was not related to his deployment.”
The officer’s attorney, Skylar Limkemann, said that the arbitrator who ruled that Officer Williams should get his job back found “no just cause to terminate his employment,” The Gazette reported.
The university argued that the arbitrator had found that the officer “did in fact conduct an illegal search” that violated policy.
However, the University of Iowa claimed Officer Williams had been reinstated at his prior rank and salary because the arbitrator thought “termination for a first-time offense was too severe,” The Gazette reported.
The arbitrator did order that Officer Williams should have been suspended without pay for six months, but that was moot because he had already been off the job for eighteen months when he was reinstated to the police department.
His lawsuit is still in the courts and Johnson County District Court Judge Andrew Chappell still is considering whether to give Officer Williams back pay, seniority and benefits, and attorney costs and fees, according to The Gazette.
The officer has also asked to have the discipline expunged from his record.
The judge is expected to render his verdict shortly after New Year’s, The Gazette reported.