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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > November 2013 > Search and Seizure (Hotel Rooms): State of Ohio v. Wright

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Search and Seizure (Hotel Rooms): State of Ohio v. Wright

Question: If a hotel employee gives you permission, can you search a hotel room occupied by a guest?
Quick Answer: No, unless the employee has, by an affirmative action, evicted the guest and the guest is aware of the eviction.

State of Ohio v. Wright,  Eight Appellate District, Cuyahoga County, Oct. 10, 2013
Facts: The Brook Park Police Department received a call from a hotel about a disturbance. Upon arrival, officers observe a naked man, later identified as George Wright, sweating profusely and foaming at the mouth. Officers watched Wright knock off an exit sign and a portion of a sprinkler system, rip wires down, and wrap them around his neck. Hotel personnel informed the officers that Wright had been pounding on hotel doors and disturbing other guests. After Wright admitted to taking PCP, a rescue squad was called. Wright was removed from the hotel and sent to the hospital. Hotel staff asked the officers to check the hotel room for damage. An employee unlocked the door and the officers entered. The room was in disarray. Officers found a bag of crack cocaine and a vial of PCP in an open drawer in the dresser. Wright filed a motion to suppress because he, as the registered hotel guest, did not give police permission to search the hotel room. The state argued that Wright had lost his right of privacy by creating a disturbance and the search was proper because the hotel employee let the officers into the room. The court determined Wright still had a right to privacy in the hotel room and suppressed the evidence.
Importance: In general, a hotel employee may only enter a hotel room to perform duties associated with his or her job. They cannot authorize or give consent to a police to search the room when the room has been leased to a hotel guest. However, if the hotel guest surrenders or voluntarily abandons the room, the guest may lose his reasonable expectation to privacy. A hotel employee may also terminate the guest’s right by taking affirmative steps to repossess the room. This must be done through affirmative acts by the hotel staff, for example locking the guest out of the room or telling the guest he is evicted.
Keep in Mind: In this situation you are relying on a third-party to do the right thing. Prior to conducting the search of a hotel room, ask the hotel staff if they have evicted the guest and if the guest knows about the eviction. Make note of what they tell you in your report. If you are unsure whether or not the eviction took place, get a warrant. Taking these extra steps will protect evidence and your arrests.
More on Search and Seizure
What if Your Actions Cause the Possibility of Imminent Destruction of Evidence?  You and fellow officers are at the door of a suspected marijuana grow house to perform a knock and talk because you do not have enough evidence for a warrant. A woman walks toward the back driveway and you follow her through two gates that were open, up two stairs and onto a wooden porch. At that point, you smell a strong odor of marijuana. One of the officers bends down to look through a basement window and sees marijuana hung to dry in the basement. When he goes back for a second look, the marijuana has been removed. Fearing destruction of the plants, you and the other officers kick the back door in. Once inside, you find a dozen drying plants and a large quantity of growing plants. You secure a warrant and find firearms, a surveillance system, and a large quantity of cash. Once the court views the surveillance video, they see your partner lying on the ground with a large flashlight, peering into the basement window. The video shows that you moved a trash can to gain a better view through a second window. Did you and your partner go too far? The court in Stacey says yes. The court concluded that the testimony of the officers and the footage from the video was in direct contradiction. The officers had entered an area beyond where the public would welcome a guest, and this caused a Fourth Amendment violation. Further, because the officers’ actions (lying on the ground, looking through the window with a flashlight) caused the people inside to move the marijuana, officers were prevented from using the “prevention of imminent destruction of evidence” reason to enter the house without a warrant. State of Ohio v. Stacey, Sixth Appellate District, Ottawa County, Sept. 27, 2013.
You Know He Isn’t Your Shooter. Can You Still Search Him? You and your partner are dispatched to an area on a report of multiple gun shots and have learned the shooter is on foot. Near the shooting scene you encounter an individual walking in the middle of the street. You stop him, citing him with pedestrian in the roadway, and begin to question him regarding the shooting. He tells you he has no weapons, but your partner pats him down. You notice that the suspect keeps reaching toward his left pocket. Based on your experience, you check the pocket and find a pill bottle belonging to another person. You ask him if he as anything else illegal on him and he says he has cocaine. Did you have a right to search him even though you figured out he wasn’t the shooter? The court in Tyler says yes. The officers in this situation had a reasonable, articulable suspicion throughout the encounter with Darius Tyler. The Terry stop was done properly due to Tyler’s actions and the circumstances of the shooting. When he kept reaching for his pocket, causing suspicion, the officers properly searched him. State of Ohio v. Tyler, Tenth Appellate District, Franklin County, Oct. 22, 2013.
Warrantless Gun Residue Test: There has been a report of a double shooting. The physical evidence indicates the shootout occurred between two groups of people standing across the street from one another. You get a call that two individuals have shown up at a hospital on the other side of town with gunshot wounds. You learn that one of the individuals had a known feud with one of the individuals killed in the shooting, so you arrange to have him transported to the police department upon release. He is transported to the police station, still in a hospital gown, and is interviewed. You seize his clothing and perform a gunshot residue test on the clothing and his hands. You do not ask his permission or get a warrant. Was this test properly done? The court in McGee says no. None of the seven recognized exceptions to a warrant were met in this case. When Ryan McGee was taken from the hospital to the police station, there were limited facts connecting him to the shooting. There was not probable cause to arrest McGee at that time, although there was reasonable suspicious to investigate further. There could be no search incident to arrest in this case. The officers should have obtained a warrant for the test. State of Ohio v. McGee, Seventh Appellate District, Mahoning County, Sept. 18, 2013.