Sunday, July 19, 2009

Case o' The Week: Good win from Goodwin, Fourth Amendment and Hotel Searches, Young

It seems that for our indigent clients, hotel rooms are a frequent and important subject of Fourth Amendment litigation (particularly for meth, motels, and Montana). Thankfully, this week Judge Goodwin (left) gives us an important decision that emphasizes the privacy expectations of hotel guests. See United States v. Young,__ F.3d __, No. 07-10541, 2009 WL 2020126 (9th Cir. July 14, 2009), decision available here.

Players: Big win by N.D. Cal. AFPD Elizabeth Falk.

Facts: Young was given the wrong room key when he rented a Hilton hotel room. Id. at *1. The tenant of that other room later called and complained about stolen items. Id. Realizing the mistake, hotel security entered and searched Young’s correct room while he was gone. Id. Hotel security found a backpack, within which were checks (belonging to other folks) and a handgun. Id. They also found the card sleeve for the key to the other hotel room, but none of the stolen stuff. Id. They left the gun.

The Hilton “electronically locked-out” Young and flagged a cop, who intercepted and interviewed Young in the lobby. Id. (This interview revealed Young had been to prison). The cop handcuffed Young to a bench and called his sergeant, who told the cop that the hotel room could not be searched without a warrant. Id. So, the cop had hotel security enter the room, open the backpack, and show the cop (in the hall) the gun – who then seized it “in plain view.” Id. Young was charged with § 922(g)(1).

Northern District of California District Judge Jeffrey S. White suppressed the gun.

Issue(s): ‘The Government brings this appeal, arguing that Young did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room because hotel staff had evicted him prior to the warrantless search. Alternatively, the Government argues that the search should not be found unlawful because it did not exceed the scope of the private search by the hotel staff that had occurred earlier. Finally, the Government posits that even if Young retained an expectation of privacy in the room and the police search was unlawful, reversal is necessary here because the firearm falls under the inevitable discovery exception.” Id. at *1.

Held: “[B]ecause the hotel did not actually evict Young, he maintained a reasonable expectation of privacy in his hotel room. We therefore AFFIRM the district court's order granting the motion to suppress.” Id. at *1.

Of Note: One wacky theory offered by the government to salvage this search was from the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobsen. Recall that Jacobsen was a private search of a FedEx package that revealed drugs; the Court endorsed the authorities’ subsequent search because one doesn’t have a privacy interest in a FedEx’ed box containing only drugs. Id. at *8. Like Jacobsen, the government argued, the private hotel security here could search the backpack and then show it to the cops. Id. at *9.

The majority doesn’t buy it (and even dissenting Judge Ikuta steers clear). Judge Goodwin distinguishes Jacobsen with a “very restricted application,” because in the Young case the suspect had all sorts of other privacy interests – in the backpack, and in the hotel room itself. Id. at *9.

This flat rejection of the government’s novel Jacobsen approach is an important Fourth Amendment holding for the Ninth.

How to Use: Besides the Jacobsen discussion mentioned above, Young has two more important Fourth Amendment components. First, the Court spends a great deal of time explaining the privacy expectations of a hotel tenant – expectations similar to a “lessee of an apartment.” Id. at *4. Just because a hotel calls the police, or a hotel guest is arrested, that reasonable expectation of privacy is not destroyed. Id. By demanding clear evidence of eviction from a hotel, Judge Goodwin offers some welcome Fourth protection to hotel guests.

Equally welcome is the dialogue between Judge Goodwin and dissenting Judge Ikuta on inevitable discovery. Judges Goodwin and Kleinfeld reject the government’s “circular logic” – dryly observing that the only reason the discovery of the firearm was “inevitable” was because the officer “took a short cut, even light of the instruction from his sergeant that a search of the room was impermissible.” Id. at *10. This opinion offers much good, practical language to rebuff the government’s attempt to seek refuge in “inevitable discovery” when a cop is too lazy to get a warrant.

For Further Reading: For a classy and moving tribute to Judge Alfred T. (Ted) Goodwin, visit a report on his Honor’s birthday celebration in Portland, Oregon. See former clerk's blog here.

Image of the Hon. Alfred T. (Ted) Goodwin from

Steven Kalar, Senior Litigator N.D. Cal. FPD. Website at


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