Recent First District Case Covers the Fourth Amendment Protections of Motel Rooms

October 21, 2021 Criminal Defense, Drug Charges


The First District Court of Appeal recently decided Robinson v. State, a case arising out of trafficking and possession convictions. The Appellant, Gregory Pernell Robinson, was convicted for trafficking fourteen grams or more of methamphetamine, possession of hydrocodone, and possession of paraphernalia. He appealed his sentence, challenging the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress. The First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial and the Appellant’s conviction.

Factual Background

The Appellant was staying in Room Five of the Youngstown Motel. This motel is a single-story unit with multiple buildings that has a common exterior walkway that runs from one side of the building to the other. This walkway goes in front of each motel door. Based on a K-9 sniff of this common exterior walkway, law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant for Room Five. During the K-9 sniff, the dog gave a positive alert for the presence of illegal drug odors coming out of the Appellant’s room.

During the search, law enforcement officers found hydrocodone, a digital scale, a meth pipe, and methamphetamine. The Appellant attempted to suppress the evidence, arguing that the warrantless K-9 sniff violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful searches. The motion to suppress was denied by the trial court. The trial court found that the dog sniff was lawful, and the search was valid, because “the Defendant had no legitimate expectation of privacy in the common areas of the motel, including the walkway in front of his motel room door.” At trial, the jury found the Appellant guilty on all counts.

Issue Decided on Appeal

The issue on appeal is whether the trial court’s denial of the Appellant’s motion to suppress was in error. When the Court of Appeal reviews the trial court’s ruling on a motion to suppress, it defers to the trial court’s factual findings if they are supported by substantial, competent evidence. However, the Court of Appeal does review de novo the application of pertinent caselaw to those found facts.

The primary question is one concerning the Fourth Amendment. The court must ask whether a “dog sniff conducted on the common external walkway outside of a motel room constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.”

Court’s Decision and Analysis

The First District began its opinion with a Fourth Amendment overview. It stated that the Fourth Amendment guarantees the right to be protected from government intrusion of the person, house, paper, and personal effects. This intrusion can come in the form of unreasonable searches and searches. Furthermore, the Fourth Amendment mandates that all warrants must be based upon probable cause. The court distinguished the protections of the Fourth Amendment, pointing out that “[t]he Fourth Amendment protects people, not places, and whether it affords protection depends on:

  1. Whether the person has exhibited an actual, subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the search, and
  2. Whether society is prepared to recognize that expectation as reasonable.”

The court also established that a search occurs when a reasonable expectation of privacy, one that society recognizes as reasonable, is infringed by the government.

As to the home specifically, the court affirmed that an individual’s private residence is given special status under the Fourth Amendment, and a “substantial government intrusion into the sanctity of the home constitutes a search within the Fourth Amendment.” A motel room or hotel room is considered a private dwelling under Fourth Amendment considerations if the occupant is there legally. Furthermore, the occupant is entitled to the same rights inside of their hotel or motel room as the occupant of a permanent private dwelling. But, areas outside of the hotel or motel room, like walkways or hallways, that are open to use by people other than the occupant, may not be considered reasonably private since they are public areas where officers have the authority to be present.

The court did an in-depth analysis of Nelson v. State, another sniff test case. In that case, the police did a dog sniff test of the hallway outside of the appellant’s hotel room and used the positive result of the sniff test to obtain a search warrant for the hotel room. Upon review, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of the appellant’s motion to suppress the evidence, rejecting his argument that the law enforcement officers did not have the authority to walk in the hallway of the hotel in search of drugs. While the Fifth District found that Fourth Amendment protections apply to hotel guests and private dwelling occupants alike, it found that the appellant did not have a valid, reasonable expectation of privacy, because areas outside of a hotel room, like walkways and hallways, are open to public use. Therefore, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy outside of hotel or motel rooms.

The court then distinguished notorious Florida dog sniff case, Jardines from the instant case. In Jardines, the Florida Supreme Court found that a dog sniff test conducted at the front door of a private dwelling is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, law enforcement officers must have probable cause of wrongdoing in order to obtain a valid warrant. The Court emphasized that a private home is afforded special, “sacred” status, and the Fourth Amendment “draws a firm line at the entrance of the house, and reasoned in part that a sniff test conducted at a private home can be an intensive and intrusive procedure that entails a degree of public humiliation for the resident.”

The Supreme Court of the United States also reviewed Jardines, agreeing that the dog sniff at Jardine’s front door constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment and holding that the government’s use of a K-9 to investigate the home and the curtilage (immediate area surrounding the home) is a violation of the Fourth Amendment without a warrant. The Supreme Court stated that “when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals,” and “the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental instruction” “would be of little practical value if the State’s agents could stand in a home’s porch or side garden and trawl for evidence with impunity.”

The First District then narrowed down the central inquiry in the instant case – whether the motel’s walkway is considered “curtilage” under the Fourth Amendment. In order to be considered curtilage, the court must decide if it comports with the Dunn factors:

  1. “The proximity of the area at issue to the home;
  2. Whether the area is within the enclosure surrounding the home;
  3. The particular use of the area; and
  4. The steps taken to protect the area from observation from individuals passing by.”

When the Second District Court of Appeal weighed these factors previously in relation to a parking space in front of motel rooms, it found the parking space was not curtilage:

even though the hood of the appellant’s car was only about three feet from the motel door …  there was no indication that the area was enclosed, that the occupants of the rooms took any steps to protect the parking space from observation by people passing by, or that the parking space could not have been used by anybody visiting the motel.

The First District analyzed the previously stated caselaw and found that the dog sniff conducted on the common walkway in front of the Appellant’s motel room was not a search under the Fourth Amendment. In making this finding, the court stated that the walkway was open to public use, including other motel guests, employees, and visitors. Since it was a public area, the police could enter and walk the area outside of the motel without a warrant. While the occupant of a private residence has a reasonable expectation of privacy on their front porch or in their backyard, a motel guest does not share this same reasonable expectation of privacy since, generally, everything outside of the motel room is a public space. The walkway outside of the Appellant’s room is not curtilage as contemplated by Fourth Amendment jurisprudence because it “does not harbor the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a home and the privacies of life.”

The First District Court of Appeal affirmed the denial of the Appellant’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the dog sniff conducted outside of his motel room.

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

Fourth Amendment protections are not as straightforward as they seem. With each new case, the jurisprudence directing Fourth Amendment decisions develops and evolves. That is why it is incredibly important to retain a Tallahassee criminal defense attorney well-versed in Florida’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm stay up to date on Florida’s Fourth Amendment caselaw in order to ensure Florida’s criminal defendants are informed of and empowered to enforce their rights. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, contact Pumphrey Law Firm today at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss your case during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

This article was written by Gabi D’Esposito

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