Time Capsule: HMC Student Takes Innovation Too Far

Harvey Mudd College encourages students to immerse themselves in hands-on research projects that creatively apply their studies. But in 1986, an HMC student did some extracurricular chemistry that the school did not condone. For one 20-year-old chemistry major, S.L., out-of-class experimentation included making methamphetamine.

In Sept. 1986, S.L. was arrested outside of his dormitory and charged with the processing and manufacturing of methamphetamine, an illegal and highly addictive stimulant. The authorities confiscated over $100,000 worth of methamphetamine liquid from S.L’s room, where he had constructed a makeshift laboratory.

Also in S.L.’s dorm room, the authorities found five gallons of ether, which S.L. used to manufacture the drug. It was “enough to blow up 40 percent of the building had it exploded,” read the HMC newspaper, The Muddraker, a week later.

S.L.’s arrest shook up the HMC community.

The student’s suitemates initially denied knowledge of any meth-related activity. The HMC judiciary board investigated the students and declared them guilty of illegal possession of drugs. They were subject to off-record probation and were no longer allowed to live on campus. One suitemate, president of the Associated Student Government of Harvey Mudd College (ASHMC), resigned from his position several days later. S.L. himself was suspended from HMC indefinitely.

The path leading up to S.L.’s arrest was a circuitous one. According to the facts cited on the legal brief of S.L.’s appeal made in 1988, an air cargo supervisor at the Ontario Airport first became suspicious of a package received in shipment, which he described as empty but smelling of ether. The package bore S.L.’s contact information, although another person picked it up.

The air cargo supervisor, concerned about potential hazards, called S.L. to inform him that any potentially hazardous materials should be declared as such. S.L. did not admit to any involvement with ether, but agreed to follow all procedures in the future.

Three weeks later, S.L. brought in a package to the airport for shipping. He stated that it contained “personal effects.” But the same air cargo supervisor was on duty, and after S.L had left, the supervisor recognized the name of the shipper as belonging to the same person that he had contacted a few weeks before.

Suspicious, the air cargo supervisor opened the package. Inside were two bottles full of a “yellowish liquid.” From there, the narcotics task force came to investigate the liquid. The officers felt they had probable cause to believe the bottles contained phencyclidine (PCP) or methamphetamine, and soon the bottles were taken to a laboratory in downtown L.A. for testing. The following day a criminalist conducted tests and declared the contents to be methamphetamine oil.

In the ensuing court case, S.L. pleaded no contest. His motion to suppress evidence that he saw as the fruit of an illegal search, namely the laboratory testing and subsequent seizure of the meth in his dorm room, was denied, and he was granted “three years of probation under the condition that he serve 120 days in county jail.”

But S.L. appealed the decision on grounds that his motion to suppress evidence was denied unlawfully. The appeal was successful: The appellate court overturned the conviction, ruling that although the initial search at the airport was legal under probable cause, the subsequent laboratory testing was warrantless and therefore violated S.L.’s Fourth Amendment rights. The evidence obtained from the student’s dorm room, storage container, and from any incriminating statements made at the time, was to be considered “fruit of the poisonous tree” and would be subject to the exclusionary rule—meaning that because the evidence resulted from what was initially a warrantless search, it could not be used against S.L.

The appellate court had effectively reversed the decision and the charges against S.L. But California Attorney General John K. Van de Camp sought to use the S.L. case to fight for the inclusion of evidence obtained in drug cases. He appealed the case to the California Supreme Court. They refused to hear it, and so Van de Camp appealed it to the United States Supreme Court. They also refused to hear it, letting the ruling stand without comment. 

In Harvey Mudd College, The Third Decade Plus, 1977-1988, HMC’s second president D. Kenneth Baker wrote: “Members of the Department of Chemistry were outraged, as were many others since the presence of chemicals and chemical equipment in a dormitory room is a serious violation of campus policies. Sadly, the promising future of a student was catastrophically lost.”

But it seems that S.L. entered another four-year institution, majored in chemical engineering, and has gone on to have a fruitful career with a prominent oil and energy company.

This “tragic event reminded students, faculty, and staff that campus does not provide a haven from law enforcement agencies,” wrote Baker.

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