In Washington, Court Bans Random Checks of Motels

Court makes it unconstitutional to checks registers for criminals without suspicion of crime


Apr. 27--Some local police say a ruling Thursday by the Washington Supreme Court will badly hurt efforts to clean up high-crime hotels and motels.

The state's highest court ruled that it's unconstitutional for police to randomly check motel registers for criminals if officers have no reasonable suspicion of a crime.

Civil libertarians praised the ruling, saying it means people don't give up their rights to privacy when they check into a room overnight.

But Lakewood Police Chief Larry Saunders said the ruling "takes a tool away from us" in long-standing efforts to clean up crime-ridden areas of the city, including Ponders and the South Tacoma Way corridor.

The court, in a 7-2 decision, overturned a Pierce County case that came to it on appeal.

A sheriff's deputy working in Lakewood in 2003 checked the Golden Lion Motel register as part of his routine, and used a portable computer to determine that a guest, Timothy E. Jorden, had outstanding felony warrants. Deputies then went to Jorden's room and arrested him after finding illegal drugs.

Jorden was convicted in Pierce County Superior Court for unlawful possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to 22 months in prison.

The high court decision overturns that conviction.

"This court has consistently expressed displeasure with random and suspicionless searches, reasoning that they amount to nothing more than an impermissible fishing expedition," Justice Bobbe Bridge wrote in the majority opinion.

Superior Court records show Jorden has other convictions dating back to 1996 that include unlawfully possessing controlled substances, robbery, theft, possession of stolen property and unlawful possession of a firearm.

"Jorden's exactly who we want to keep out of Lakewood, with his drugs and long criminal history," said Saunders, the Lakewood chief.

Fife police also check motel registries routinely. They do it once a month with state Department of Corrections officers to ensure that convicts living in motels comply with release conditions. Chief Brad Blackburn said he's not sure whether that effort can continue in light of Thursday's court ruling.

Tacoma police have done it in the past, but don't routinely check motel registries now, said police spokesman Mark Fulghum.

Both the lower court and an appeals court had upheld Jorden's conviction. He then appealed to the high court.

Justice Bridge said information contained in a motel registry is private and protected from random police checks by the state constitution.

A person staying at a motel might be a celebrity seeking privacy or might be involved in confidential business negotiations or have other private reasons for being there, she said.

Doug Klunder, an American Civil Liberties Union of Washington lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said, "There's a lot more at stake than just a person's name."

The ruling means people staying at a motel or a hotel don't have to worry about the government collecting information "about their personal lives, their travel patterns, or the company they keep," he said.

Justices Barbara Madsen and Charles Johnson dissented. Madsen wrote that guests were on notice that their registry information might be relevant to crime prevention efforts because the motels posted on their premises "Crime Free Hotel/Motel Guest Rules."

State law dating back to 1915 shows there is no privacy interest invaded by information in a hotel registry, Madsen wrote.

Officers in Lakewood first used the random motel registry checks when Pierce County sheriff's deputies patrolled the city, and continued when the city Police Department formed in 2004.

The voluntary program gave assistance to motels and hotels with a history of criminal activity by showing employees methods of crime reduction. The high court said Lakewood police aren't stopped from running the rest of the program.

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