Can a university’s campus police department use search warrants to seize items outside their jurisdiction?

The answer is yes, but only when the crime occurred on campus, according to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in a ruling issued yesterday for a case out of Guilford County.

The case was a rather bizarre one, involving a woman who filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against her employer, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, only to have criminal charges levied against her when investigators discovered that during the discovery process, the woman hacked into a vice chancellor’s email account and sent a bogus message in attempt to reclaim her job. Suddenly the woman, Patricia Bernard, went from a plaintiff in a civil case to a defendant in a criminal case.

Just before her trial, Bernard filed a motion to suppress computer evidence seized by A&T campus police, suggesting that they didn’t have off-campus jurisdiction and should not have been permitted to search her Greensboro residence. A judge denied the motion, and a jury found Bernard guilty of accessing a government computer without authorization, accessing computers, and identify theft. (Her sentence was suspended.) Bernard appealed.

The case stretches back to 2008, when Bernard was laid off from A&T. She filed a wrongful termination suit, which she won on the grounds that the university failed to inform her of her right to contest the termination.

But during the discovery period of the case, Linda McAbee, A&T’s vice chancellor of human resources, informed the university’s Department of Police & Public Safety that someone accessed her email account without her permission, and sent out a bogus email to university administrators in attempt to be rehired or compensated.

University technicians determined that the email was not sent from McAbee’s computer. They also learned that other administrators’ email accounts were accessed without authorization.

An A&T campus detective learned from Time Warner Cable records that the Internet Protocol address used to hack into the account was assigned to Bernard. Knowing that Bernard was involved in a civil dispute with the university, the detective received warrants to search Bernard’s residence and computers.

In the court of appeals opinion published yesterday, the judges cited a North Carolina statutory mutual aid agreement permitting campus law enforcement to make inquiries and arrests beyond the perimeter of campus if the crime was committed off campus.

In the Bernard case, the court ruled, the email hacking was a campus crime since the bogus email was sent through A&T computer servers, which reside on campus.