Law In Focus: Motel SearchesMay 1st, 2007 by josh farley
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.
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.