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SJC says college campus police can make some arrests off-campus

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Friday upheld the authority of university and college police officers to arrest people who commit crimes in areas used by the college, but which are not necessarily part of the campus.

The issue came to the court following an arrest on a Northampton city street by a Smith College officer, according to the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

In a decision written by Associate Justice Robert Cordy, the Supreme Judicial Court said campus police officers’ authority to safeguard the campus community from dangerous threats extends to “those areas where students, faculty, and visitors might be exposed to the danger from the type of conduct exhibited by the defendant in this case.”

University of Massachusetts spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons said the ruling is unlikely to affect UMass police, as its officers already have arrest powers off campus. The move could, however, affect other campuses.

“This probably affects more private schools than it does public,” Fitzgibbons said.

In recent years, UMass police has signed mutual aid agreements with towns, including Amherst, Hadley and Belchertown, allowing the full exercise of police powers in each other’s jurisdictions, including arrests, traffic stops and citations.

This means UMass police have legal authority to respond to incidents in those towns, even when not requested by the towns’ police departments.

UMass began making these arrangements in 2004 after a bill sponsored by state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, authorized UMass to be considered a town for the purpose of such agreements.

The SJC case — Commonwealth v. Steven M. Smeaton — involved a driver who drove recklessly on a Northampton street that runs adjacent to Smith College. On Oct. 11, 2010, Smith College police officer John Wagner saw Smeaton’s vehicle nearly strike a pedestrian in a crosswalk, drive onto a sidewalk and the lawn in front of College Hall, and speed down West Street, according to the district attorney’s office. Wagner followed Smeaton’s car and pulled him over on West Street. Smeaton was later charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and reckless driving.

Smeaton argued in the trial court that Wagner exceeded his authority as a campus police officer because the alleged crimes occurred on a city street, not campus property. Northampton District Court Judge Jacklyn M. Connly agreed and ordered that evidence stemming from the stop could not be introduced at trial.

Assistant Northwestern district attorneys Stephen J. Sloan and Thomas H. Townsend appealed the ruling to the Supreme Judicial Court. Attorney John Sofis Scheft, on behalf of the Massachusetts Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, filed a brief in support of the district attorney’s position. The SJC reversed Connly’s order.

“This decision vindicates the excellent police work by the Smith College police in removing a dangerous driver from the road,” Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said in a statement. “As a legal precedent, it will greatly aid university and college police forces across Massachusetts in their vital role of ensuring the safety of their campus communities.”

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