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The Police Can’t Search Your Hotel Room Without Your Consent

When you check into a hotel, does your hotel room afford you the same privacy rights that you would have at your house?  Or can a hotel employee with a key allow the police to search anytime?  A recent Ohio case answered this question.

As long as you have not checked out, been kicked out, returned the key without paying or otherwise given up the room, you have an expectation of privacy in that room.  That means that the police generally cannot ask hotel staff to open or search the hotel room without a warrant.

The Police Search a Guest’s Room After He Acts Erratically at Hotel

In State v. Wright, 2013-Ohio-4473, shortly after midnight, police officers received a call of a disturbance at a local airport hotel.   When they arrived, they found a naked man, later identified as the defendant, sweating profusely and foaming at the mouth.  He was acting erratic, pounding on hotel room doors and disturbing other hotel guests.  He did not admit to taking any drugs.

An ambulance arrived and took defendant to the hospital where he was treated and ultimately arrested.  After the defendant was taken to the hospital, hotel staff asked the officers to check the defendant’s hotel room for damages. A hotel employee opened the room and let the officers inside.

The officer testified that the defendant’s room was in disarray with coffee stains on the walls and barbecue sauce on the nightstand, wall and bedding and money on the floor.  He also found a bag of suspected crack cocaine and a vial of suspected PCP in an open drawer in the dresser.

The defendant was indicted with one count of trafficking, two counts of drug possession, one count of vandalism and one count of possession of criminal tools.  He filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained during the warrantless search of his hotel room.

Hotel Guests Have an Expectation of Privacy in their Hotel Rooms – Hotel Staff Cannot Allow Police to Search Without a Warrant

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion and suppressed all evidence found during the search on the following grounds:

  • The search occurred prior to check-out;
  • >Defendant did not voluntarily abandon the hotel room;
  • The hotel staff did not make any affirmative steps to evict Defendant.

Thus, the hotel occupant (the defendant) did not give up his expectation of privacy in the hotel room for the duration of his reservation.  On appeal, the Ohio court of appeals agreed.

The defendant was a registered hotel guest and therefore had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his room under the Fourth Amendment. His disorderly behavior did not terminate his statute as a guest and did not remove his privacy interest in the hotel room.  The hotel employees cannot consent on the guest’s behalf.

Generally, “a hotel employee may enter a room in performance of its duties, but they cannot per se authorize or give consent to a police search of that room.” State v. Miller, 77 Ohio App.3d 305, 602 N.E.2d 296 (8th Dist.1991), citing Stoner v. California, 376 U.S. 483, 84 S.Ct. 889, 11 L.Ed.2d 856 (1964).

The only way to give up your privacy interest in the hotel room is to:

  • Check out;
  • Return the key without paying for another night;
  • Voluntarily abandoning the room;
  • Be kicked out of the hotel (evicted from the room by taking affirmative steps to repossess the room, such as asking the guest to leave).

Here, there was no evidence of any affirmative acts by the hotel staff to divest the defendant of his status as an occupant and guest of the hotel. For example, they did not lock him out of his room or tell him that he was evicted from the hotel. He paid for the room and his destructive behavior occurred in the common areas of the hotel, not his room.

Without any affirmative act on the part of the hotel staff, the defendant’s privacy interest in his hotel room protected him against the warrantless search of his hotel room by the police officers. Thus, all of the evidence of drugs found in his hotel room were suppressed and could not admitted in court.  As a result, the charges against him stemming from the search will be dismissed.

If the police have searched your home or hotel room and found evidence of drugs or drug paraphernalia, speak with an Ohio search and seizure attorney today to see if there were any flaws in the officer’s search.  If, as here, the police searched without a warrant or without your consent, there is a chance the charges against you could be dropped.