Rebecca Pleins and her husband were on a water taxi in Baltimore when they got the first call at 8:30 p.m. — they missed it.
Fifteen minutes later, they got a call again.
The staff at Motel 6, where the North Carolina couple was staying with their six dogs, had gotten complaints about noise, entered their room while they were out, found the dogs without food or water, considered them thin and thus concluded they were neglected.
“I said we would come and get our dogs and leave,” Pleins said. “As soon as I said that, they transferred me to a police officer who had already been in my room.”
The Pleins rushed to the motel, fearing their dogs would get taken away, but at one point, once they had time to think, Pleins said they wondered if the police even had the right to enter their room without a warrant. The situation also led to the authorities finding and confiscating their firearm.
This whole issue raises the question: Are hotel and motel rooms protected under the Fourth Amendment and if so, how much?
‘They’re going to do this to other people’
When the Pleins reached their motel room near BWI airport, after being gone since mid-morning, they were met by Anne Arundel County Police and sheriff deputies, as well as motel staff.
“They told us to stand by our car, do not move or you will be leaving in handcuffs,” Pleins recalled of the incident that occurred over the Fourth of July weekend while they were visiting the city to learn more about her family history.
“This whole time, of course, the motel employees were in our room, feeding our dogs food that is unfamiliar to them, letting them out of their kennels, giving them water,” she said.
Pleins explained that the dogs are like family to her.
“I don’t feel safe trusting them to a kennel or anything,” she said.
This is why, before making the trek to the Baltimore area, she called to make sure the motel would allow all of her dogs.
According to Motel 6′s policy, “service animals and well-behaved pets” are allowed.
Pleins said one of her dogs was a greyhound mix, which might make it appear as if it were malnourished. She also noted that she and her husband feed their animals later at night, which is why they were left without food.
At one point, Pleins said the hotel manager accused her of saying over the phone that if anything happened to her dogs she would use her gun to “blow [their] heads off.” Pleins countered that she said no such thing.
“I did not say that. I said if my dogs were taken…I would be contacting the news and an attorney and you would be in deep explicative,” Pleins said.
When the staff member accused her of this in front of the police officer though, Pleins said she wanted to be transparent and told the officer she did have a firearm in the room. At this point, Pleins said the officers handcuffed her and her husband, rushed into the room and retrieved the weapon. After running a check, they found it unregistered.
“In North Carolina where we actually live it’s not required to register weapons. Nor is it required in Colorado, where my husband bought it at a pawn shop, to register weapons,” Pleins said.
Eventually, animal control showed up, assessed the state of the animals and ended up telling the Pleins they seemed little “but definitely nothing to be screaming about,” she recalled.
The Pleins were allowed to leave that night with their animals and without charges, she said. The authorities, however, kept the firearm.
Anne Arundel County Police Department did not return TheBlaze’s request for comment in this case. Lt. Jennifer Gildbrant-Duran with the county sheriff’s department said the deputies would likely have only been there “backing up county police.” Otherwise, they were not involved because their duty would have been to serve a summons or a warrant, which was not the case for the Pleins’ situation.
“At Motel 6, it is our first priority to maintain a safe and secure environment for all of our guest,” the company told TheBlaze in an emailed statement. “Although we cannot discuss the specifics of any case, Motel 6 reserves the right to access rooms every day for housekeeping, maintenance and safety and security. Our policies are designed to offer a safe environment for all of our employees, our guests and their pets. For example, our policies require that all pets and animals must be declared at check-in. In addition, our policy states that animals that pose a health or safety risk may not remain onsite including those that are too numerous for any one room, are too disruptive or are not properly attended.”
While she is happy they were able to leave with their dogs without further incident, Pleins said she doesn’t believe the motel or police had the right to do this.
“My biggest fear [is] they’re going to do this to other people. They’re not going to see any reason not to,” Pleins said.
But were the motel staff and police actually acting within their rights? Do people who pay for a room at a hotel or motel have protections against unauthorized entering and searches?
‘The problem lies in exceptions’
The short answer, Alex Ozols, an attorney based in San Diego, told TheBlaze is “yes, you do have a right to privacy in a hotel room but be aware that there are exceptions that the police can use to do a search in certain situations.”
Ozols cited the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of the U.S. vs. Katz, U.S. vs. Cormier and the Fourth Amendment as protecting people’s rights to privacy as it pertains to their things and places, but he noted that a hotel room is a “weird situation because it is leased’ to the individual for a certain amount of time.”
“[T]echnically if police searched the hotel room there would be a good argument that they are in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The problem lies in the exceptions,” Ozols said.
Byron Henry with the Dallas-based firm Cowels and Thompson, got into a couple of these types of exceptions.
For example, what if hotel staff, if it had the right to enter your room while you were out (if no “do not disturb” sign were present) to clean the space, and housekeeping saw something illegal and reported it?
“That is considered reasonable and does not require a warrant and not be in violation of Fourth Amendment,” Henry said.
There are extenuating circumstances that would likely override a “do not disturb” sign as well, which Henry said would otherwise imply an expectation of privacy. If hotel staff smelled smoke or heard running water or a domestic disturbance, for example, they could be justified in entering the room without consent. Police would also have such a right if they heard or smelled something that could endanger public safety or gave them probable cause to suspect something illegal was happening inside as well.
In the case of the Pleins’ noisy dogs, Henry said that it was the duty of the officers to respond to a complaint of alleged misconduct.
All in all, Henry said he doesn’t think law enforcement entering the room is the “rub of this issue,” but whether or not the motel was in any violation entering the room.
“The hotel generally would not then be able to give its consent to someone else going in if it couldn’t go in itself,” Henry said.
According to Motel 6′s policy on pets, animals “may not remain onsite and include those that, in our managers’ discretion, are too numerous for any one room, cause damage to our property or that of other guests, are too disruptive, are not properly attended, or demonstrate undue aggression. The policy also states that pets “should not be left alone in a room or automobile.”
The motel says online that it “reserves the right to access rooms every day for housekeeping, maintenance and safety and security.”
Still, Pleins said she believes ”this was an illegal search” and it’s something she plans on pursing legal action against.
We will be discussing this story and all the day’s news on our live BlazeCast with Editor-in-Chief Scott Baker (@bakerlink):
This story has been updated to include a statement from Motel 6 and correct that the company did not comment in time for this posting, when it in fact did.