No. Police cannot search a hotel room without a search warrant UNLESS there is a valid exception that exists.
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons and houses against unreasonable searches and seizures, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Exceptions to the Search Warrant Requirement
Exigent circumstances sometimes exist which can allow police to conduct an immediate search of a hotel room without a warrant. Such an emergency situation might be present when:
- there is a grave threat to the safety of police officers, the public, or their property, OR
- there is the likelihood that a criminal will escape, OR
- evidence of a crime will be lost or destroyed.
Please note that when an emergency arises in a criminal context, probable cause must still exist to support a search or seizure. Probable cause exists when there is a "reasonable" belief that criminal activity is taking (or has taken) place.
If police exceed their authority and conduct an illegal search of a hotel room:
- evidence can be suppressed or thrown out,
- a criminal case could be dismissed,
- the police could be sued for damages.
Can Hotel Employees Allow Police to search a Room Without a Warrant?
No. A hotel room is like a person's home and a warrant is required before police can enter. A hotel manager does not have the authority to allow the police to enter and search the rooms of guests. People v. Burke, 208 Cal.App.2d 149.
It is possible, however, to give up your right to privacy in a hotel room. This could occur if:
- you leave contraband in plain sight,
- you violate hotel policy and get kicked out of your room,
- you abandon the room with or without paying.
After checkout time had passed a maid entered a room and found drugs and other personal property. Police were called, searched the room without a warrant, and found evidence of a murder. Although a car was still parked outside the room and property was inside, the court found that by not extending his stay the former occupant had abandoned his room. People v. Parson (2008) 44 Cal. 4th 332.
Is There an Exception to the Search Warrant Requirement for Hotel Rooms?
Police must have a warrant to search a hotel room but depending on the circumstances there may be an EXCEPTION to the warrant requirement. Exceptions could include:
- valid consent to search,
- search incident to a lawful arrest,
- plain view doctrine,
- exigent circumstances.
Exigent circumstances exist in situations where:
- people are in imminent danger,
- evidence faces imminent destruction, OR
- to prevent a suspect's imminent escape.
There are limits, however. In one recent California case, the court ruled that:
Smelling burning marijuana a few feet from a hotel room door is not exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless entry into the room because in California smoking marijuana is not an offense punishable by jail. People v. Torres (2012) 205 Cal. App. 4th 989.
What Happens if Police Illegally Search a Hotel Room?
If police exceed their authority and conduct an illegal search of a hotel room, under the exclusionary rule the government may be prevented from using any evidence that was illegally seized. This could result in:
- evidence being suppressed or thrown out,
- dismissal of criminal charges,
- the police could be sued for damages.
One important EXCEPTION to the exclusionary rule is the doctrine of inevitable discovery.
This doctrine says evidence does not have to be thrown out if the prosecution can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that it would inevitably have been discovered anyway by other lawful means.
After arresting a bank robber outside his motel room, FBI agents checked the room to see if anyone else was inside. One agent looked inside the toilet tank and saw money. Agents obtained a search warrant, but an agent who did not know about the money executed the search and found it. The serial numbers matched the money stolen from the bank. The court ruled the money would have been discovered anyway. United States v. Merriweather, 777 F.2d 503
Please note that the law involving searches and seizures can be very complicated. If you or someone you know has been arrested, it is IMPORTANT to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney to protect your rights.