Can a hotel employee authorize the police to search my room?

In general, hotel and motel personnel don’t have authority to consent to a warrantless search of the room of a registered guest. (Stoner v. State of Cal., 376 U.S. 483 (1964).)

In an Ohio case, for example, a hotel housekeeper entered a room that her records listed as occupied but that appeared to be vacant. (State v. Miller, 77 Ohio App. 3d 305 (1991).) She began to inspect it, and in the process found cocaine. She called the police and gave the responding officer some of the drugs, leaving the rest in the room. Officers later searched the room, finding the remaining cocaine.

The appellate court ruled that, as a product of a search by a citizen, the cocaine the housekeeper gave the officer was admissible. But it ordered the suppression of the remaining drugs, finding that the housekeeper’s “speculative mistaken belief” that the room was unoccupied didn’t supply a legitimate basis for officers to search it. Rather, they should have asked hotel management whether the room was rented, then sought a warrant if necessary. That’s because hotel employees typically cannot give valid consent to the search of a presently rented room unless the occupant has authorized them to.

Room renters should note, however, that if they have abandoned the room or stayed beyond their rental period, then all bets are off.

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