You are staying at a motel. You heard some people with a dog outside your room, but you thought nothing of it. A little while later, the police were at your door. The dog you heard earlier was part of the canine unit, and now police want to search your room.
Can they do that? What can you do?
The Fourth Amendment of the constitution guarantees you the right to be free of unreasonable searches or seizures. The police need probable cause or a warrant to perform a search although there are some exceptions. When you are in a hotel or motel, you have the same expectation of privacy in your room as you would have in your own home. Therefore, the police must obtain a warrant in order to search.
But what about outside your home or hotel room? Police may still need to obtain a warrant depending on if the area searched is within the "curtilage" and whether you have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
To determine if the area to be searched is part of the curtilage, the court looks at four factors: 1) the proximity of the area to the home, 2) whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home, 3) the nature of the uses to which the area is put, and 4) the steps you took to protect the area from observation by people passing by.
For example, in People v. Lindsey, police used a dog to sniff the door handle and seams of defendant’s motel room. The dog alerted police to the presence of heroin, and the police returned with a warrant. The appellate court found the dog sniff violated the Fourth Amendment and overturned defendant’s conviction. However, the Supreme Court reversed this decision.
Applying the four factors, the Supreme Court found that: 1) the alcove was equally close to defendant's as well as a neighboring room; 2) the alcove was not within an enclosed area surrounding the room; 3) the alcove was not put to personal use by the defendant but was accessible to the motel's staff and public at any time; and 4) the defendant had taken no steps to shield the alcove from observation by other motel guests or the public.
The court next considered whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The court considers: 1) the person’s ownership or possessory interest in the place, 2) the person’s prior use of the place, 3) the person’s exclusive control of the place or ability to exclude others from it, and 4) the person’s subjective expectation of privacy. The court concluded the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the area outside his motel room. Therefore, the dog sniff was legal.
If you are the subject of an unlawful search, an attorney may be able to petition the court to suppress the evidence found in the search. The results of an illegal search are known as “fruit of the poisoned tree.” If police have no other basis for your arrest, your case could be dismissed.
If you have questions about this or another related Illinois criminal or traffic matter, please contact Matt Keenan at 847-568-0160 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: People v. Lindsay.
(Besides Skokie, Matt Keenan also serves the communities of Arlington Heights, Chicago, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glenview, Morton Grove, Mount Prospect, Niles, Northbrook, Park Ridge, Rolling Meadows, Wilmette and Winnetka.)