Police Searches of Hotel Rooms and Other Rented Spaces
Under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions, law enforcement officers need a search warrant anytime they want to search a suspect's private residence with few exceptions. If the police do not obtain a warrant prior to conducting the search of a home, then the owner of the home and any guests who are staying there could potentially have any incriminating evidence which was found in the search suppressed and excluded from trial. This same basic rule requiring police to get a search warrant also applies when police want to search a hotel room. If you are a guest in a hotel, the police cannot search your room without a search warrant. Unfortunately for the defendant in Commonwealth v. Williams, the Superior Court held that the defendant has the burden at the Motion to Suppress hearing of showing that the defendant actually rented or was staying in the hotel room.
Commonwealth v. Williams
In Williams, the defendant was charged with three counts of Possession with the Intent to Deliver, possession of drug paraphernalia, and two counts of possession of a controlled substance. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence because police searched the hotel room in which the drugs were recovered without a search warrant. At the motions hearing, the prosecution established that police officers in Erie, Pennsylvania responded to a 911 call for a shooting on March 18, 2016 at the defendant's home. Once there, police found a dead pit bull, lots of blood, and a man who had been shot in the leg and face. Police did not find any other victims or the shooter, so they began interviewing the neighbors. One neighbor informed police that the defendant lived in the first floor apartment at that location, and he had seen one of the defendant's vehicles leaving the area around the time of the shooting. The officer looked in the window of the apartment and did not see anyone home, so he radioed for the car to be stopped.
Other officers stopped the defendant in the car which the neighbor had seen. Once stopped, the defendant told police that he had been staying in a nearby a hotel with a friend because of ongoing domestic issues with his girlfriend. He showed the officer a key card for a hotel room, and he told the officer that the key was for room 111. He also told the officer that he was in room 111 at the time of the shooting.
Following this conversation, officers removed the defendant from the vehicle and frisked him. They also frisked the passenger and recovered a gun. At some point, after the conversation had occurred, officers also searched the car for weapons, and during this search, they found that the defendant had taken the hotel key card from his wallet and discarded it in the vehicle. Williams had apparently dropped the card between the driver's side seat and the center console of the vehicle, so the police took it.
Based on this information, an officer went to room 111 and knocked on the door. When no one answered, the officer went to the front desk and spoke with hotel management. Management informed the officer that the key card was not for room 111 and that the card was actually for room 231. However, the employee did not know who had actually rented room 231. Further, the employee stated that the hotel did not have surveillance footage which would show who had rented the room.
Apparently concerned that another shooting victim might be in room 231, the officer went and knocked on the door for that room. When no one answered, the officer decided that it was an emergency. Instead of waiting for a search warrant, he used the key card and opened the door. The officer immediately smelled marijuana and found drugs and drug paraphernalia in the room. He did a quick check of the room for shooting victims, and then he obtained a search warrant to recover the drugs and paraphernalia.
For reasons which are not explained in the Court's opinion, the defense did not challenge the stop and search of the defendant's vehicle or subsequent seizure of the room key. Instead, the defense argued that the drugs in the hotel room should be suppressed because the police were required to obtain a search warrant prior to entering the room. The Commonwealth responded with two arguments. First, the Commonwealth aruged that the defendant failed to establish that Williams had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the hotel room because there was insufficient evidence to show that he had rented or was staying in the room. Second, the Commonwealth argued that the exigent circumstances surrounding the shooting justified the police decision to enter the room without a search warrant because there could have been another victim who needed medical assistance in the hotel room.
The Exigent Circumstances Exception to the Warrant Requirement
The exigent circumstances doctrine permits law enforcement to enter a house without a warrant during a true emergency. If police reasonably believe that someone is dying inside a home, then the police do not have to wait for a search warrant before entering the home and rendering aid. Of course, if they find something incriminating in plain view during their attempts to render aid, then that evidence wil be admissible at trial. This issue often comes up in cases involving burglary alarms. If a burglary alarm goes off and police do not find anyone at the scene when they arrive to investigate, they may decide to enter the home without a warrant and check for burglars. If they find your drugs and guns inside the house while looking for burglars, it will often be difficult to have that evidence suppressed despite the absence of a search warrant.
The trial court agreed with the defense and granted the Motion to Suppress. The trial court found that police were required to obtain a search warrant prior to entering the hotel room because a guest in a hotel room has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room. Further, the court found that the exigent circusmtances exception to the warrant requirement did not apply as police had no real basis for believing another shooting victim to be in the room. Therefore, the court found that even though the drugs were in plain view once police entered the room, the drugs should be suppressed because police only saw the drugs because they illegally entered the room without a search warrant.
The Superior Court disagreed and reversed the Order granting the Motion to Suppress. The Court found that the defendant failed to establish that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the hotel room. The defendant presented no witnesses, so the Commonwealth's evidence was essentially uncontradicted. Under Pennsylvania law, a defendant who is charged with a possessory offense like Possession of a Controlled Substance has automatic standing; this means that the defendant may always move for the suppression of the items sized. However, in addition to having standing, a defendant who moves to suppress evidence must also have had a reasonable expectation of privacy which was violated by some sort of law enforcement action. If the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched, then it does not matter if the police followed the rules. For example, if the police illegally search your house and find evidence which they wish to use against me, then I would not be able to successfully have the evidence suppressed because I did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your house. If they wanted to use the evidence against you, you would be able to win a Motion to Suppress because it was your house, but I would be out of luck.
What is a reasonable expectation of privacy?
The Court noted that a reasonable expectation of privacy exists when an individual exhibits an actual or subjective expectation of privacy and that expectation is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. Courts must evaluate the totality of the circumstances in deciding whether a defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy, and the test does not depend solely on the subjective intent or belief of the defendant. Further, prior case law established that although it is the Commonwealth's burden to prove that evidence was obtained legally at a Motion to Suppress hearing, the burden remains on the defendant to show a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Pennsylvania law is very clear that a hotel room deserves just as much protection as a private home or office. A registered hotel guest enjoys a legitimate expectation of privacy in a hotel room during the period of time in which the room rental remains valid. However, the expectation ceases to be reasonable after the rental period has ended and/or the guest's right to occupancy has lapsed. A person also does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a room in which they are not staying.
Here, the defendant would have been in much better shape for the Motion to Suppress had he testified that he rented that particular hotel room and believed it to be private. However, he did not do so. Instead, he told police that he was staying in a different hotel room, and he actually tried to discard the key to the room. Further, when police spoke with hotel employees, they were told that the hotel did not know who had rented the room and also did not have any video surveillance which would show defendant staying in that room. Accordingly, the only evidence in the record was that defendant had a key to a room in which he did not admit to staying. Therefore, the Superior Court found that the defendant failed to establish that it was his room and correspondingly that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room. Police were not required to obtain a warrant prior to the search, so the Court did not even reach the issue of whether emergency circumstances justified the warrantless search.
The Williams opinion, although intellectually dishonest, illustrates the dangers of relying on the Commonwealth's evidence to establish a reasonable expectation of privacy and constitutional violation on the part of law enforcement. It also shows how unforgiving Pennsylvania's reasonable expectation of privacy doctrine can be compared to New Jersey's much more relaxed standard. Of course, it is obvious from the record that the room had been rented by Williams. A court could have easily inferred, as the trial court did, that it was his room. He had the key, he lied about which room he had rented because he knew there were lots of drugs in it, and the police only searched it because they believed it was connected to him. Indeed, if the prosecution did not believe that it was his room, then they would not have charged him with Possession. It is a certainty that the prosecution will not be withdrawing the charges despite arguing that it was not Williams' room on appeal.
The Pros and Cons of Testifying as a Defendant in a Criminal Case
Nonetheless, once Williams claimed to have been staying in a different room, he probably needed to testify at the Motion to Suppress hearing in order to establish that it was his room. If he had testified that it was his room, then the Court would not have been able to find that he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy therein. There is often a great deal of reluctance to call criminal defendants to testify for fear that they will say something incriminating or open the door to some other type of incriminating evidence which would have been otherwise inadmissible. Additionally, if the defendant has prior convictions for certain crimes of dishonesty (burglary, robbery, theft, etc.), then the fact of those convictions may become admissible when the defendant testifies. However, in some cases, it is simply necessary. Here, Williams likely should have testified that it was his room. This is particularly true because the defendant's testimony during a Motion to Suppress hearing may not be used against the defendant at trial even if the Motion is denied unless the defendant testifies to something inconsistent at trial. Therefore, Williams had little to lose by conclusively establishing that it was his room.
Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers
As always, if you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers have won motions to suppress drugs, guns, and other contraband in cases involving car searches, house searches, and searches of hotel rooms. We can help at both the trial and appellate level. Call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session.