Evidence from notorious motel room admissible

By Tom Egan
BridgeTower Media Newswires

BOSTON, MA — Evidence found during a warrantless police search of a motel room could be introduced against a defendant who had been invited to sleep in that room, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

A U.S. District Court judge, finding that the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the motel room, ordered the evidence suppressed.

The 1st Circuit, in a split decision, reversed.

“We find that sleeping in a motel room for longer than a brief period of time, without more, is insufficient to warrant Fourth Amendment protection,” Judge Norman H. Stahl wrote for the majority.
Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson dissented.

“Bottom line: Reading the record in the light most favorable to the judge’s ruling, and keeping in mind that his decision must stand if any reasonable view of the evidence supports it, I believe the unreversed findings and the uncontested evidence establish — under controlling precedent — that [the defendant] was an ‘overnight guest’ … in a constitutional sense,” Thompson wrote.

“Which again means [the defendant] had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the motel room and so could challenge the search,” she added.

The defendant was represented on appeal by Vivian Shevitz of Portland, Maine. Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin M. Block argued on behalf of the government.

Notorious motel

On Nov. 7, 2014, two state troopers received a tip that guests in room 216 at a Super 8 Motel had with them large bags containing crack, cocaine or heroin. 

The Super 8 Motel was known to the agents as a common stopover for out-of-state gun and drug traffickers.

At approximately 9 a.m., agents began knocking on the door to room 216.

Although no one from the room responded, an unidentified man partially opened the door to room 218.

Jahrael Browne had rented room 218 with Joshua Bonnett. The motel registration reflected two persons staying in the room, but only Browne’s name was included on the registration form.

Although room 218 smelled of marijuana, the agents informed the man that they were not there for him.

After a minute or two, the door to room 218 opened again. A man subsequently identified as Bonnett stood by the door, and defendant Marquis Aiken stood five to 10 feet behind him.

The defendant was barefoot and wearing only shorts. The agents observed that one of the beds looked like the sheets and comforter were pulled back, while the other bed appeared to have just been made.

One of the agents recognized the defendant from a recent heroin trafficking arrest, raising suspicions that “there was possibly more going on inside that room besides marijuana.”

The agents asked both men to step out of the room.

When neither man exited the room, the agents entered, conducted a security sweep, and observed what appeared to be a bag containing marijuana on one of the beds and a digital scale dusted with white powder on a nightstand between the two beds.

One of the agents opened the top drawer of the nightstand and discovered a bag containing a quarter to a half kilogram of a substance that appeared to contain cocaine base.

The defendant and Bonnett were charged with possession with intent to distribute a mixture or substance containing cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §841(a)(1), and aiding and abetting such conduct, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §2.

The two men filed motions to suppress all evidence seized as a result of the search. A judge found that both had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the motel room and could contest the search as a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.

The judge ruled that the search violated the Fourth Amendment and granted the motions to suppress. The government appealed the decision as to the defendant’s expectation of privacy.

Defendant’s lack of standing

On appeal, the defendant argued that “as a guest who slept in the room, he ‘had an actual, subjective expectation of privacy ... that was objectively reasonable,’” Stahl noted.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1998 decision in Minnesota v. Carter, “it is appropriate for us to consider the (1) the nature of the defendant’s visit, (2) his length of stay, and (3) his relationship to the host in analyzing a defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy,” Stahl said.

He said the burden was on the defendant to show that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area that was searched.

“Although the district court did not clearly err in finding that Aiken was Bonnett’s ‘guest’ — that is, Aiken was invited by Bonnett to sleep in the motel room for ‘more than a brief period,’ it incorrectly inferred that Aiken had an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy based on these facts alone,” Stahl wrote.

“As to Aiken’s length of stay, the district court found that Aiken slept in the room and was present for ‘more than a brief period,’ however, the district court made no factual findings as to the amount of time Aiken spent in the room,” Stahl pointed out.

The majority also noted that Aiken put forth no evidence regarding how he knew the two men associated with the motel room.

“While the district court found that Aiken slept in the room, there was no finding that he was an ‘overnight guest’ within the meaning of Minnesota v. Olson, [decided by the Supreme Court in 1990],” Stahl said.

The majority found there was a qualitative difference between an overnight guest and drug trafficker who is present inside a motel room and falls asleep for an unknown period of time.

“There were no indicia present in the hotel room supporting Aiken’s overnight-guest status, such as an overnight bag or toiletries,” Stahl wrote, noting that it was unclear what purpose Aiken had in the room, how long he stayed in the room, how long he slept in the room, and how well he knew the occupant.

“While certain inferences can be drawn from the testimony provided, these inferences alone cannot satisfy Defendant’s burden,” he said.
 

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