12/13/2001 12:00AM

Court rules off dorm searches

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The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed that regulators in New York can conduct searches on racing backstretches without warrants but said investigators overstepped their bounds when searching racetrack dormitory rooms.

The ruling, issued Nov. 26, arose out of a lawsuit by several harness owners, trainers, and other backstretch employees at Yonkers racetrack following a Dec. 9, 1997, search by investigators attached to the New York State Racing and Wagering Board.

The search, which lasted 13 hours, turned up evidence of syringes and illegal medications at the track.

In an earlier decision, a lower court had affirmed the board's right to search the track's buildings and anyone on the backstretch without a warrant, including dorm rooms.

The U.S. District Court agreed with the lower court on the issue of conducting searches of both buildings and people without warrants, but the court reversed a portion of the earlier ruling by saying that dormitories could not be searched without a warrant, claiming that the dorm rooms constituted "residences" that were afforded higher privacy protections.

"The governmental interest at stake concerns the integrity of harness racing in New York," the ruling stated. "We acknowledge this to be a substantial interest, but warrantless searches of residences are not necessary to further this purpose."