If The Motel Room is Searched, Can the Parked Car Be Searched?

One of the tools readily available to law enforcement is a search warrant. A warrant typically follows days, weeks, or months of surveillance of a particular target. The investigation could be focusing on narcotics, weapons, human trafficking, or any other number of criminal activities. After the gathering of evidence through surveillance, the case agent will submit an application for a warrant to a judge. If the judge finds probable cause within the four corners of the document, a warrant will issue. Of course, following the issuance of the warrant, the home, residence, vehicle, computer, etc. will be searched.

With regards to a piece of real property (home, rental, motel, hotel, etc.), the warrant will typically include permission to search the “curtilage” of the property and all items within the curtilage. In determining whether parts of the property constitute “Curtilage” courts typically look to four factors:

  1. the proximity of the area claimed to be curtilage to the home
  2. whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home
  3. the nature of the uses to which the area is put, and
  4. the steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by people passing by.

United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 at 301 (1987).

Essentially, curtilage is an area so intimately tied to the home itself that it should be placed under the home’s ‘umbrella’ of Fourth Amendment protection.” Id. “[T]he primary focus is whether the area in question harbors those intimate activities associated with domestic life and the privacies of the home.” Id. at 301 n.4. 

What About a Car Parked In Front of a Motel Room?

Now to answer the questions presented: the short answer is no, a car parked in front of a motel room cannot be searched as part of the curtilage of the property. Shannon v. State, 43 Fla. Law Weekly D1704a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018).

In Shannon, “the trial court concluded that Shannon’s car had been parked in the curtilage of rooms 120, 121, and 124. The court found that the car was parked three feet in front of room 120 and that when Shannon exited room 124, it took him about two-and-a-half seconds to get to his car in front of room 120. However, the proximity of the car to the rooms is only one factor set forth in Dunn. Consideration of the other Dunn factors leads to the conclusion that the parking space in front of 120 did not constitute the curtilage of the three motel rooms identified in the warrants. There was no indication that the parking space was enclosed, thus suggesting that it was accessible to anybody walking around the motel. There was no indication that the occupants of the rooms took any steps to protect the parking space from observation of people passing by or that the parking space was used for other purposes by the occupant of the rooms. The parking space was used by Shannon at the time in question, but there was no indication that it could not have been used by anybody else visiting the motel.”

A such, the narcotics that were found in the vehicle subsequent to the illegal search and seizure of Shannon and his vehicle were suppressed from introduction into evidence and Shannon’s conviction was overturned. 

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