On September 1, 2011, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided the State v. Woods[i], which serves as an excellent review of criminal procedure issues related to the motel rooms, consent, detentions and the Fourth Amendment. The facts of Wood, taken directly from the case are as follows:
Six police officers, including Officer Tommy Grier, the state’s only witness at the suppression hearing, went to a motel to execute a warrant for the arrest of Lee on aggravated assault charges. The officers went to the room listed on the warrant, but it was unoccupied. Officer Grier testified that the manager said that Lee was staying in Room 214. Neither Lee nor Woods, however, were on the registry for the room. In fact, the room was registered to Lee’s sister. At the hearing, the manager testified that he did not know whether Lee, a long-term resident of the motel, was staying in Room 214, but he suspected it.
The officers went to Room 214 and knocked on the door. At least one of the officers had his weapon drawn. Woods opened the door. The officers asked Woods if Lee was in the room, and he said no. They asked if they could enter the room to look for her, and Woods gave permission. As they were completing the search, a passerby mentioned that Lee was in Room 306. Most of the officers left the room, but one or two stayed with Woods to make sure he did not call Lee to warn her of the officers’ arrival. At this point, the officers in the room holstered their guns.
The officers found Lee in a room on the next level of the motel and took her into custody. Ten to 15 minutes later, Officer Grier returned to Room 214 to speak with Woods. As he was walking into the room, another officer with Grier’s unit, Officer Benjamin Griggs, recognized Woods and identified him by his street name, Blue. Griggs said that Woods had just been released from prison where he had been incarcerated for cocaine trafficking. Grier confirmed this information with Woods and began asking him questions. Woods told Grier that he had nothing illegal in the room, that clothes hanging next to the sink were his, and that he stayed in the room. Grier then asked Woods for permission to search the room. Woods consented.
The officers began searching the room. In a drawer, they found men’s underwear and socks, which Woods identified as his. They also found a picture of Woods and his son and his paperwork, including a check stub. The officers asked Woods what was in the room safe. Woods responded, “I don’t know what’s in the safe, but it ain’t mine.” Grier asked Woods if he could search the safe, and Woods responded, “Go ahead. But I don’t know the combination.” Grier retrieved a device for opening the safe [*4] from the manager’s office. As Grier walked by, the officer who was detaining Lee told Grier that Lee had admitted that there was marijuana and crack in the safe and that it was hers.
Grier returned to the room, opened the safe and found crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia inside. Grier then arrested Woods. [ii]
At a motion to suppress, the trial court ruled that both Lee and Woods had standing to challenge the search of the motel room since Lee was a resident of the room and Woods was an overnight guest who kept personal items in the room. Further, the trial court held that the police lacked reasonable suspicion to detain Woods after learning Lee was not in the room and after Lee was arrested at another room. Thus, Woods detention was unlawful, and, as such, his consent to search the safe was not voluntary. The state appealed the ruling of the trial court to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
Was Lee a resident of the motel room with standing to object to the search of the motel room?
The court of appeals first examined whether Lee had standing to object to a search of the motel room. The state argued that there was insufficient evidence for the trial court to determine that Lee was, in fact, a resident of the motel room that was searched. To this argument, the court of appeals noted the motel manager told the police that Lee was a resident of motel room at issue and stated that she stayed there with her sister, the woman who actually rented the room. Because the motel manager testified at trial and was subject to cross examination on his testimony, the court found that it was not clearly erroneous for the trial court to have held that Lee was a resident of the motel room at issue.
As such, Lee had standing to object to the search of the motel room because she was a resident of that room and, as a resident, she possessed a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room. [iii]
Next the court examined whether the trial court was correct in granting Woods’ motion to suppress. The state put forth three arguments to support their contention that Woods’ motion to suppress the evidence should have been denied. First, the state argued that Woods lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the motel room (thus he would have no standing to contest the search). Second, the state argued that Woods “abandoned” his interest in the safe and therefore lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents. Third, the state argued that Woods validly consented to a search of the safe.
Did Woods possess a reasonable expectation of privacy in the motel room?
The state proffered that Woods was merely a guest at the motel room, and, as such, did not possess a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room. The state points that the fact that Woods was not a registered guest at the room, did not have a key and only had Lee’s permission to sleep there.
However, Woods argued that he did stay overnight in the room, and, as the police saw, he did keep clothes and other personal items in the room. The court of appeals then held that because he occupied the room as an overnight guest, he possessed a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room with standing to object to the search. [iv]
Did Woods abandon his expectation of privacy in the safe when he denied possessing the safe and its contents?
Regarding the issue of abandonment, the court of appeals stated:
The question of abandonment for Fourth Amendment purposes turns on whether under the totality of the circumstances, the investigating officer reasonably believed at the time of the search that the accused had relinquished his interest in the property to such an extent that he no longer had a reasonable expectation of privacy in it. [v]
The court of appeals then stated that because the police asked Woods for consent to search the safe, they possessed a reasonable belief that Woods actually did possess a reasonable expectation of privacy in the safe. In further support of this was an officer’s testimony in court that he did believe that Woods possessed authority to consent to a search of the safe.
As such, the court held that Woods did not abandon his expectation of privacy in the safe.
Did Woods validly consent to a search of the safe?
The court of appeals began its analysis of this issue by stating:
Police-citizen encounters fall into three categories: “(1) communication between police and citizens involving no coercion or detention and therefore without the compass of the Fourth Amendment, (2) brief ‘seizures’ that must be supported by reasonable suspicion, and (3) full-scale arrests that must be supported by probable cause. [vi]
The court of appeals then noted that, in Woods case, the state did not argue that Woods was validly detained based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause. As such, the contact with Woods, to be legal, must have been a valid consensual encounter. If the encounter was consensual, Woods consent could be deemed voluntary, rather than the product of an unlawful detention.
The court then examined whether the encounter de-escalated from a second tier encounter (investigative detention) to a first tier encounter (a consensual encounter). The court stated that it must look at the totality of the circumstances and consider the following factors:
[W]hether there was a clear and expressed endpoint to any such prior detention; the character of police presence and conduct in the encounter under review (for example — the number of officers, whether they were uniformed, whether police isolated subjects, physically touched them or directed their movement, the content or manner of interrogatories or statements, and “excesses” factors stressed by the United States Supreme Court); geographic, temporal and environmental elements associated with the encounter; and the presence or absence of express advice that the citizen-subject was free to decline the request for consent to search. [vii]
When comparing the facts of Woods’ case to the factors above, the court observed that there was no clear endpoint to the initial detention indicating Woods was free to go. Further, several officers entered Woods room and questioned him after Lee was arrested which does not indicate the encounter is consensual. Further, the reduction in officers when they initially learned that Lee was not in the room did not de-escalate the encounter into a consensual encounter.
The court of appeals then stated that because the officers did not have sufficient reasonable suspicion or probable cause to continue the detention, the detention was illegal. Further, because the detention was illegal, the consent is not valid because a person subject to an unlawful detention cannot give valid consent. [viii]
Lastly, the state attempted to argue that the police saw marijuana in the room which justified Woods’ detention. However, there was evidence that this evidence was not seen until after Woods was detained and had given his consent (which was invalid consent) to search the room. The court stated:
Post-seizure events cannot justify, after the fact, a detention that was unreasonable when it occurred. [ix]
In conclusion, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court in its granting of the motion to suppress in favor of both Lee and Woods.
NOTE: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal advisor regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] A11A1199, 2011 Ga. App. LEXIS 790
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 7
[iv] Id. at 9 (citing Snider v. State, 292 Ga. App. 180, 182 (663 SE2d 805) (2008)( Compare Smith v. State, 284 Ga. 17, 21 (3) (663 SE2d 142) (2008) (because defendant was not an overnight guest of the registered guest, did not have a key to the room, and had no luggage in the room, he had no expectation of privacy in the room).
[v] Id. at 9-10 (quoting State v. Browning, 209 Ga. App. 197, 197-198 (1) (433 SE2d 119) (1993))
[vi] Id. at 11 (quoting State v. Davis, 206 Ga. App. 238 (424 SE2d 878) (1992))
[vii] Id. at 12
[viii] Id. at 14 (citing Pledger v. State, 257 Ga. App. 794, 797 (572 SE2d 348) (2002))
[ix] Id. (citing See Norton v. State, 283 Ga. App. 790, 793-794 (2) (643 SE2d 278) (2007); State v. Combs, 191 Ga. App. 625, 628 (2) (382 SE2d 691) (1989) (physical precedent only))