Law In Focus: Motel Searches

Blogger’s Note: Law In Focus is intended to be a new feature here at the Forum that will pose a question to a local attorney concerning a recent court decision or controversial area of law. Keep in mind: these are lawyers we’re talking about. So expect them to have opinions. Feel free to comment on them below or ask a question.

Today’s topic: The state supreme court ruled last week that it’s not constitutional for law enforcement to randomly check motel registries if officers have no probable cause that a crime has been committed. Here to comment on the decision is Stan Glisson (pictured), a local Bremerton defense attorney.

Brush up on the state supreme court’s motel search decision by reading Rob Tucker’s story in the Tacoma News Tribune, or see the actual court’s written decision.

Here’s Stan’s opinion:

In Lakewood, it has been common practice for a long time for hotels to cooperate with the “Crime-Free Hotel Motel Program.” Part of the program is that police can come by anytime and read the guest register, learning who is checked in to the hotel and what room they are in. Police could do this with no specific suspicion that any particular person in the hotel is committing a crime.

In this case, the police read the register and found the name of a person who had an arrest warrant. They went to his room to arrest him, and found him unclothed in bed with a woman in the room, and drugs on the nightstand.

The question for the court was, is the random inspection and review of a hotel guest register an unjustified intrusion into the private affairs of the hotel guests?

The information gathered isn’t inherently private or secret, such as the guest’s name and maybe license plate number. This isn’t ‘confidential’ information per se. However, the court did rule in a 7-2 decision that police can no longer randomly gather guest register information and use it for the basis of a criminal investigation, and in this case threw out the conviction for the drugs that were discovered.

The court reasoned that although the information by itself isn’t private, the fact that the person is staying in hotel room might be a private matter, which we should hold “safe from governmental trespass.” Guests might have private reasons for needing a hotel room – secret relationships, confidential negotiations, victims hiding from abusers, or even “celebrities seeking respite from life in the public eye.” For these reasons, the court decided that a person’s mere presence in a hotel room could be an ‘intimate detail’ of their life, and therefore protected from governmental intrusion absent a particularized suspicion of criminal activity. No warrant, no review of the guest register.

This brings me back to the Gig Harbor High School situation. Kids in the hallways know
that there are security cameras; they know they are in a public place, and for that reason some of us believe those kids have no expectation of privacy in their actions. The difference, as in the hotel case, is how that information is used. You understand when you sign the register, or kiss someone in a public school hallway, that you are not in the privacy of your home; you understand others could be observing you, and using that information in a way that is negative to you. But we reasonably expect that nobody would be doing such a thing.

That’s why the court got it right – there is a reasonable expectation of privacy and discretion for persons checking in to a hotel, or engaging in other historically personal acts. As cameras become more ubiquitous in our culture and privacy appears to erode, it is good to know that our highest court hasn’t forgotten that.


Stan Glisson is an attorney in Bremerton with the firm Glisson and Witt. Their firm mainly handles DUI and misdemeanor defense, as well as felony defense. Glisson earned his law degree at the University of Washington, has worked as a Kitsap County deputy prosecutor, and as a Kitsap and Snohomish defense attorney before entering private practice.

24 thoughts on “Law In Focus: Motel Searches

  1. Good comments, thank you. I totally agree with you.
    The idea of police officers…anyone… having the right to inspect hotel/motel registers without specific reason, in hope of finding a criminal is ludicrous.
    Persons checking into a hotel/motel are paying for the privacy of the room. Otherwise, the front desk should have a sign saying their guest registers are subject to casual police scrutiny.
    That said…. how about the practice of police officers driving through the parking lot of a hotel/motel and checking license plates?
    Would that be legal or be considered the same privacy as the hotel/motel registry?
    Sharon O’Hara

  2. The Supreme court ruling sets fine with me. I never could imagine going on a getaway and be the victim of a private police officer investigation. Are our police that bored?

  3. We wouldn’t want our police catching any known sex predators or any other useless members of society, doing their thing in a cheap motel… now would we?

  4. I don’t see what the big problem is. If people would not be breaking the law then they would have nothing to worry about from the police. I personally like the idea of the police being able to arrest the criminals and keep them off of my doorstep. As far as them running the plates on cars, the owners of the cars have no expectation of privacy if they leave the car where it can be easily seen.

  5. Elaine,

    It’s not a matter of “police boredom.” Would you rather have your local law enforcement officers sitting around the office waiting for 9-1-1 calls or would you rather have them out trying to find criminals?

    The solution is simple. If these folks would have taken care of their arrest warrants or better yet, hadn’t committed a crime in the first place which ultimately resulted in the warrant, they wouldn’t have had to worry about those overzealous jackbooted thugs ruining their peaceful stay at the “No-Tell Motel.”

    Since I doubt that any non-criminal citizens were effected by these motel checks, score one point for the rights of the criminal and zero points for their victims, the general public and law enforcement.

  6. Okay, as much as “slippery slope” arguments usually elicit nothing but eye rolls from me, fed up’s argument is definitely another story.

    So if we have done nothing wrong, we have nothing to fear with police looking at hotel and motel registries. Well, if we’ve done nothing wrong, we have nothing to fear with police walking into our homes without notice or knocking. For that matter, if we’ve done nothing wrong, we have nothing to fear with police listening in to our phone conversations with no warrant.

    Yes, there may be criminals (even pedos) in hotel/motel rooms. There also may be people doing drugs in their homes, or committing other crimes in their homes. There may be people discussing crimes over the phone. Does that mean we should absolutely abolish every single right that WE have? I am going to say no.

  7. Miriam,
    Searching names in a hotel registry to check against wants and warrants is far from entering your home unwarranted. Also does this mean that you believe that police should not be able to find the name of a tenant of a house while preforming their duties? It seems to me that they equate to the same thing. In a world where the criminals seem to have more rights than those of us who are obeying the law, it seems that there is now one more battle won for the bad guys. Personally I couldn’t care less if the police know that I am staying in some dive flop house motel. I also know that they won’t arrest me since I have done nothing to have a warrant sworn against me. I don’t see how this can help anyone except for the criminals.

  8. “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    I’m not a criminal, but that doesn’t make my whereabouts anybody’s business but my own. We have our rights as Americans being slowly whittled away as it is. It’s not at all that I want to make the job of police officers any more difficult than they already are, but that doesn’t mean my rights come second to anything else. Those rights extend to more than just criminals, they are our rights, too.

  9. Let me see if I understand your stance fed up. Let’s say the police reads a hotel register, they see your name as a guest registered at this hotel, which is the same name of a criminal they have a warrant for and they come to your room while you are in bed, with your significant other. This will not bother you? This will not make you angry?

    Do not misunderstand me, I want criminals off the street just as much as you, however, if my name is the same as one they are looking for and they barged into my hotel room, yeah I’m not going to be happy and the fact I have done nothing wrong, and am a law abiding citizen is inconsequential. The fact that my space was invaded in a demoralizing manner is what would make me angry. Think about that angle.

  10. Michele, when I have checked into a hotel I also include my address and license plate number along with my name. If a criminal is using my personal info somewhere and has used it in committing a crime which then leads the police to busting into my room, then I would totally forgive the intrusion. How about this: say your child is missing and Lester the Molester has checked into the Motel for sex with a child. Law enforcement may indeed be suspicious that a crime is in progress. Yup, there is his name on the register. Let’s just wait a few hours until he comes out of the room?

  11. TJ, I understand what you are saying. However, why should we as law abiding citizens give up our rights because of all the criminals in the world? Is this fair to us?

    I would not want, due to a criminal obtaining my information, have the police barge into my hotel room, start screaming at me to put my hands in the air, start cuffing me and have my kids screaming because they are scared. And based on this scenario, would I be as forgiving as you claim you would be?

  12. Michele,
    Honestly if I were woke up because my namesake had commited a crime, I would blame him. I would not blame the police due to the fact that I would not give them a reason to be rough or rude. I was woke up earlier this year when four police were arresting someone at 3 in the morning. I didn’t blame the police for waking me. I blamed the idiot who was breaking the law and not being compliant. I admit that I was arrested once and yes I was breaking the law. I was very complient and the police officers that arrested me were professional and respectful. Most police are intrested in resolving situations with the least amount of conflict. In order to live in a democratic society we have to give up some liberties to be free. Otherwise we have anarchy. I may not agree with quite a few of the laws in our country. However I will still obey them and live safe and free.

  13. Jeff, Police, I am sure have plenty to do during their shifts. Just driving around they find people . What if, say a best friend’s wife is on that list at the No Tell Motel. The best friend then calls the husband and tells him. She is there hiding because she is a domestic violence victim and has never told. The husband then goes and kills her. Would it be alright to have had the right to view check in records then? There are many scenerios. I still believe that we all have the right to privacy.

  14. Elaine-
    This court decision only applies to the government (law enforcement in the case at hand). If a private citizen wants to look at a hotel/motel registry, and the business lets them- no rights are violated & nothing illegal has taken place. In fact, if such an event happens and that private citizen (of their own volition) then turns the information over to the police. They can still use that information to do what they wanted to do anyway- locate, arrest the suspect, and hold them accountable for their criminal behavior.

  15. Scott, Police officers have friends. The other risk is a mistake with people having the same name.

  16. Elaine,

    What if aliens from the planet Neptune checked in to the motel to get away from their evil emperor and were discovered by the Martians? What if….what if….what if?

  17. …no one should have the right (without cause) to look through registration lists the signers had every expectation would not be open to scrutiny.

    Life being life … if an officer saw the name of a person he thinks is having an affair with his wife on a motel register…?
    … it would be one thing if he looked through the register for cause … otherwise…
    Sharon O’Hara

  18. Sharon and Elaine,

    Give me a break. You two crack me up with your conspiracy theories. For every decision made by a law enforcement officer, there are usually dozens of “what ifs.”

    An officer uses deadly force to stop the threat of a gun wielding madman and the critics who don’t understand the inner workings of the “real world” emerge from the woodwork to ask “what if they would have just talked to the man?” or “what if the officer used a Taser instead of a pistol?”

    With the recent court ruling about motel checks, they are officially a thing of the past. There is no dead horse beating here, but has anyone who reads these blogs ever been rousted out of a deep sleep by the police knocking on your motel room looking for you because you have warrants? I didn’t think so.

  19. I understand mistaking a gun for a taser is funny to you…of no consequence… and those questioning are reprimanded. and not even politely. Not a problem.

    “… Feel free to comment on them below or ask a question.

    Today’s topic: The state supreme court ruled last week that it’s not constitutional for law enforcement to randomly check motel registries if officers have no probable cause that a crime has been committed. Here to comment on the decision is Stan Glisson (pictured), a local Bremerton defense attorney. >>>”

    We were asked to make comments… now I understand questioning comments are not appreciated.
    Best wishes,
    Sharon O’Hara

  20. No Jeff! I have never been a victim in a motel. My own home Yes!! oops wrong address and wrong person. I lost some sleep but that was just an honest mistake. I received an apology. And that is fine. Another oops! A classic honest mistake somebody else’s mental health records submitted as evidence. Now the real question is who signed the release at KMH for that persons records to be used. The real person with the same name did not. Now that is a conspiracy. I know our police work very hard, they have worked hard for me and my children. I thank them for everything they have helped with. You crack me up. We are Americans and have the right to privacy. The Supreme court ruling is also right. I know our world is not perfect but, innocent people should not lose their rights at the expense of the small percentage of criminals. Yes there are less criminals than honest people still!!

  21. I just have to comment on all of this. I am reading that a few of you are completely against the police checking hotel registers. Funny, but I bet that you are the same ones that would complain about the LACK of police enforcement if YOU were the victim of a crime. Face it……law enforcement has always been the scapegoat, and always will be. They will never be able to please everyone.

  22. Danielle-you would be incorrect on your assumptions for the following reasons:

    1.) Police can’t be everywhere. If I was a victim of crime, I would not expect the police to be right there when it happened. That would be ridiculous.

    2.) In general, we, they, whomever, are incapable of pleasing everyone. If that was possible, how boring this world would be.

    We are entitled to our opinions and mine have been stated.

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