Carson motel case may set a state precedent
December 21, 2013
A state law that permits hotel and motel managers to allow law enforcement to search guests’ rooms is under the microscope, the result of a case in Carson City.
The Carson City District Attorney’s Office promises to appeal a judge’s ruling last week that tossed evidence in a drug case because deputies forced their way into a room against the occupant’s wishes, sending it to the state Supreme Court.
District Judge Todd Russell agreed with defense lawyer Ben Walker that the manager and owner lacked the authority to override Toni Marie Hardin’s refusal to allow a search of her room at the Desert Hills Motel. He ordered that all evidence collected in May be suppressed.
When deputies went to the motel, they were looking for a different person whom they thought was in a room next door. Occupants in that room said the people in Hardin’s room knew the person, so Deputy Sam Hatley knocked on the door and asked to search for the missing man. Hardin told him to get a warrant.
Hatley told the manager and owner he had seen two men through the window and wanted to search the room. The deputies received permission from the manager to enter the room but Hardin tried to stop the deputies, who pushed the door in hard enough to break it off its hinges.
Deputies handcuffed Hardin and the men in the room. The person the deputies were searching for wasn’t among them.
The deputies didn’t have a search warrant at that point, and the DA’s opposition to Walker’s motion says they didn’t conduct a search until they got a warrant.
But Walker points out that Detective Charles Stetler of Tri-Net went into the bathroom — which already had been cleared by a deputy — ostensibly to make sure no one was hiding there. He saw residue in the toilet that tested positive as methamphetamine. Deputies contacted a judge and got a warrant. They found some 40 grams of meth in Hardin’s backpack.
Walker argued that violated Hardin’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure because she’d been staying in the room for more than a month, so she had a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Walker argued that numerous cases support Hardin’s Fourth Amendment rights. Among the cases he pointed to is U.S. v. Young, which states, “The 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures is not limited to one’s home but also extends to such places as hotel or motel rooms.”
That right, he said, exists unless the motel operator terminates the occupant’s control of the room, thus asking the occupant to vacate the room. That didn’t happen in this case, Walker said.
Walker said there was no evidence the person deputies were looking for was in the room, that Hatley knew only that two men were there and that Hardin had lied about being alone.
“Those circumstances did not reasonably indicate that Hardin had committed, was committing or was about to commit a crime,” Walker argued.
He also cited cases stating that simply because a person is a hotel manager doesn’t give him he right to let police search the rooms of their guests.
Deputy District Attorney Melanie Porter argued against the motion to suppress, saying Hatley needed access to the room because there was a warrant for Manning’s arrest and his fellow deputy had seen the men open the back window of the room in what could be an attempt to flee.
Although the Tri-Net agent tested materials in the bathroom, she said, no search was conducted and no evidence was recovered until after he obtained a search warrant.
Porter also pointed out there was no evidence supporting Hardin’s claim that she was a guest entitled to be in the room at the time of the incident. As far as the motel operators were concerned, she said, Hardin was a trespasser and possibly a burglar because the room wasn’t registered in her name. Hatley, she said, was simply protecting the motel’s property and that of the registered occupant.
Russell issued his verbal ruling about a week ago.