Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Court Rules Warrantless Search of Hotel Room Unconstitutional
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The warrantless search of a hotel room, after its occupant had been mistakenly given a key to another room and items belonging to that room’s occupant were stolen, violated the Fourth Amendment, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
A divided panel agreed with U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Northern District of California, who suppressed evidence, including a firearm, seized from the backpack of Michael Young at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco two years ago.
Senior Judge Alfred Goodwin said Young had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his hotel room. Goodwin, joined by Judge Andrew Kleinfeld, also rejected prosecutors’ contention that the evidence was admissible under the “inevitable discovery” exception to the exclusionary rule.
Judge Sandra Ikuta dissented, arguing that police would eventually have obtained the evidence by legal means.
Young, who is charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, was a guest at the hotel on Aug. 5, 2007, when another guest reported the theft of items, including a laptop and iPod, from his room.
Hotel staff discovered that Young had accidentally been given a key to the other guest’s room. The staff then searched Young’s room while Young was out and found the gun—as well as checkbooks belonging to other people—in his backpack, but never recovered the stolen items.
The staff then locked Young out of the room electronically. When he tried to get into the room, a police officer summoned by the staff—Hilton corporate policy, evidence of which was presented at the suppression hearing, bars employees from handling firearms—came and spoke to him.
While the officer was talking to Young, police ran a records check and discovered Young was a convicted felon. Young was then detained while the officer joined with security personnel who entered the room; a security official showed the officer the gun in the backpack, and Young was arrested.
Expectation of Privacy
Goodwin, writing for the appellate panel, noted that hotel and motel guests have an expectation of privacy in their rooms similar to that which they would enjoy at home.
“Part of what a person purchases when he leases a hotel room is privacy for one’s person and one’s things,” Goodwin wrote. “Like a lessee of an apartment, a hotel guest does not lose his reasonable expectation of privacy in his hotel room just because he is detained or arrested by a police officer outside of his apartment, or in Young’s case, his hotel room.”
He rejected the argument that Young had effectively been evicted from the room because he had been locked out and because Hilton had a policy authorizing evictions of guests who commit crimes inside the hotel.
The judge noted that no evidence was presented that Young knew of the eviction policy or that he was told he had been evicted, nor did the hotel staff take actions associated with eviction, such as removing Young’s possessions or placing an eviction notice on the door.
In rejecting the inevitable discovery argument, Goodwin declared that prosecutors failed to show that Young would not have been allowed back into the room at some point.
Hilton policy, he noted, does not require that police be notified or the guest evicted when a firearm is found in a guest room; staff are instead required to leave the gun undisturbed, electronically lock the guest out of the room, and notify the guest upon his or her return that he or she may not keep the gun in the room, but may store it on Hilton property if secure storage is available.
Ikuta, arguing the last point in her dissent, pointed out that by the time police were notified, Hilton personnel had not only discovered that Young had a gun, but suspected him of stealing property from the room to which he was mistakenly given access and that the police officer knew of his criminal record before joining security personnel in the room.
“Because the hotel staff had discovered the gun before Officer Koniaris commenced his investigation, it was a reasonable certainty that the police ultimately would have obtained possession of the gun by lawful means,” Ikuta wrote.
The case is United States v. Young, 07-10541.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company