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Minnesota Supreme Court: Hotel Guests Have Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in Registry Information

In a case of first impression in the Supreme Court of Minnesota, the Court held that hotel guests have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the sensitive location information found in hotels’ guest registries, and police must have a reasonable, articulable suspicion of wrongdoing to search those registries.

Police arrived at a Bloomington hotel for a “hotel interdiction” — a law enforcement strategy where officers coordinate with hotel operators to target guests who use hotels for purposes of sex trafficking or to sell/use illegal drugs. The officers requested to examine the hotel guest registry and asked the clerk for the names of any guests who had paid in cash.

Minnesota law requires all lodging establishments to collect in a registry each guest’s name and address, vehicle information, and the names and addresses of any travel companions. Minn. Stat. §§ 327.10-.13. Guests must provide this information and hotel operators must make this information available to law enforcement. Id. Failure to comply is subject to misdemeanor prosecution. Id.

The clerk provided the registry and told them the room number of a man who had paid in cash. Using the registry to identify the man as John Thomas Leonard, the officers then requested a background check that revealed Leonard had prior arrests for drugs, firearms, and fraud. Based on this information, the officers decided to conduct a “knock and talk” at the door of Leonard’s room. Leonard opened the door after the officers knocked and gave them limited consent to search the room. When Leonard attempted to flee, officers arrested him. They then secured a search warrant and discovered over $2,000 worth of suspicious checks payable to “Spencer Alan Hill,” over $5,000 in cash, and check-printing paper.

Leonard was charged with two counts of check forgery. Before trial, he moved to suppress the evidence found in his hotel room. Applying the “third party doctrine” from United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 (1976), the district court denied the motion, reasoning that because guests disclosed the registry information to hotel employees, the guests held no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information. Leonard proceeded with a bench trial on stipulated evidence consisting of the items found in his hotel room. The district court found Leonard guilty, and he appealed, arguing the court erred in denying his suppression motion. The court of appeals affirmed, and the Minnesota Supreme Court granted review.

The Court observed that it has “a responsibility to ‘safeguard for the people of Minnesota the protections embodied in our constitution.’” State v. Askerooth, 681 N.W.2d 353 (Minn. 2004). Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution requires law enforcement officers to have an objective individualized articulable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing before conducting warrantless searches. State v. Carter, 697 N.W.2d 199 (Minn. 2005). The same standard applies to investigative traffic stops. Ascher v. Commissioner of Public Safety, 519 N.W.2d 183 (Minn. 1994).

Minnesota’s constitution provides greater protection than the federal constitution. For example, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in Carter that a suspicionless search outside of a self-storage unit with a dog-detection dog constituted a prohibited search under the state constitution but acknowledged that it didn’t constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment and thus did not implicate legitimate privacy interests under the federal constitution as per Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S 405 (2005). Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that temporary roadblocks stopping all drivers to catch those driving under the influence of alcohol do not violate the Fourth Amendment. Michigan Dep’t of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990). In contrast, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that such suspicionless seizures by police were prohibited by the state constitution. Ascher.

The Court in the present case explained that “Carter and Ascher demonstrate without a doubt that Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution provides greater protection against suspicionless law enforcement conduct than the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” The Court further explained that under state law a search occurs when law enforcement intrudes upon an individual’s subjective expectation of privacy that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. State v. Gail, 713 N.W.2d 851 (Minn. 2006).

Whether hotel guests have a reasonable expectation of privacy under Article I, Section 10 in the location information found in the hotel registry was an issue of first impression in Minnesota, so the Court turned to the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Jorden, 156 P.3d 893 (Wash. 2007), for guidance. The Washington court determined that there was a privacy interest because hotels provide necessary space for people engaged in consensual — but deeply private — relationships; for confidential business negotiations; for celebrities; and for people hiding from an abuser in situations involving domestic violence. The Minnesota Supreme Court, persuaded by the reasoning of Jorden, held that hotel guests have an expectation of privacy in the location information.

The Court further determined that Minnesotans were prepared to recognize that privacy interest as reasonable, reasoning that “most Minnesotans would be surprised and alarmed if the sensitive location information found in the guest registries at hotels ... was readily available to law enforcement without any particularized suspicion of criminal activity.” Therefore, the examination of the registry was an unlawful search because the police did not have reasonable, articulable suspicion that Leonard was engaged in criminal activity before examining the guest registry.

Consequently, the district court erred when it denied the motion to suppress because the evidence from the room should have been suppressed as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963). Since Leonard could not have been convicted without the evidence, the error wasn’t harmless. State v. Horst, 880 N.W.2d 24 (Minn. 2016).

Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals and remanded to the district court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: State v. Leonard, 2020 Minn. LEXIS 284 (2020). 

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