Police may obtain many records and confidential information that people give to a third party, such as a business, without a warrant. But in a recent case, the Minnesota state Supreme Court ruled that police could not obtain hotel guest records when there was no suspicion of criminal activity. This case may be important for criminal defense because these records had practically no constitutional protections.
In this case, police went to a Bloomington hotel in Aug. 2015 for an interdiction. They did not respond to a specific call. Without suspicion of criminal activity or a warrant, the officers asked to examine the guest registry and for the names of any guests who paid in cash. Minnesota law requires that all hotel operators must collect guest information and provide it to law enforcement.
Police conducted a background check and learned that this defendant had earlier arrests for fraud, firearms and drugs. Based on this information, they formed a suspicion that he was engaged in criminal activity and went to his room to speak with him. He gave police limited consent to search the room but denied access to his laptop, cell phone and a file folder containing several visible checks.
Police subdued the defendant after he tried to escape. After obtaining a warrant, police found over $2,000 worth of suspicious checks in another person’s name, over $5,000 in cash and check-printing paper.
The state Supreme Court reversed the trial and appellate courts and ruled that the warrantless search of the hotel records was unconstitutional. First, the police had no compelling reason to come to the hotel to demand records because they were unaware of the defendant. Hotel employees did not summon them or report any suspected criminal behavior.
Also, guest records contain may sensitive information that guests want to remain private and which are protected from random searches. For example, the reasons for the visit such as a medical visit or religious or political convention.
Hotel registries are unlike information that customers voluntarily give to private companies. Police, however, can inspect sensitive information contained in a registry if hotel employees give them information that provides reasonable and explainable suspicion of criminal activity.
Legal representation can help assure that privacy rights are protected. A lawyer may also help prevent unlawfully seized evidence being used in a prosecution.