POLICE SEARCHES AND SEIZURES FOR SHELTER RESIDENTS: DO YOU HAVE A REASONABLE EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY?

By: Kristen W. Sherman, Attorney, Adler, Pollock & Sheehan, P.C. and Amy Goins, Roger Williams University Law Student

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects individuals against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Article 1, Section 6 of the Rhode Island Constitution provides the same basic guarantees. These constitutional provisions generally prohibit the police from entering one’s home without a warrant (or the person’s consent) to either make an arrest or search for particular objects. To determine whether or not the Fourth Amendment protections apply, the courts evaluate whether the person whose property has been seized had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area searched.

In Rhode Island, the courts have identified several factors to be used in determining whether a reasonable expectation of privacy exists. Those factors include whether the individual at issue (1) owns the object or the area searched; (2) previously used the object or area; (3) has the power to exclude others’ use of the property; and (4) has a legitimate basis for being present in the area searched. Based on this approach, the courts have found that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in places such as motel rooms. In contrast, one may have a limited right to privacy, or no reasonable expectation of privacy at all, in places such as automobiles, prison cells or outdoor fields.

The Rhode Island courts have not yet decided whether the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to individuals living in a shelter. However, in March, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Porter that a youth had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his room at a shelter such that a gun seized without a warrant and an incriminating statement made by the youth could not be used as evidence against him in court. In that case, a shelter staff member used her master key to open the juvenile’s room where the police discovered a .40 caliber firearm. Upon being arrested, the youth made a statement about the gun being “clean.” The defense argued that both the gun and the statement could not be used as evidence against the youth because they were the result of an unlawful search and seizure.

Relying on factors like those used by the Rhode Island courts, the Court in Porter ruled that the lower court properly excluded the evidence. The Court rejected the argument that the shelter’s staff had authority to consent to the search of the shelter room on behalf of the resident. The shelter’s rules manual allowed inspections to make repairs and monitor compliance with the shelter’s “good housekeeping rules,” but did not expressly allow the staff to admit the police to search for evidence. The Court reasoned that, while the youth lived with his mother in the transitional shelter “it was nonetheless their home” where they slept and kept their belongings. In addition, the youth had a key to the room and could lock others out. The fact that he did not own the room and that the staff had a master key did not undermine the conclusion that the youth had a reasonable expectation of privacy worthy of constitutional protection.

Although the Rhode Island courts are not bound by the decisions of any Massachusetts court, it is common practice for courts to look at the decisions of nearby jurisdictions when new issues of law arise. Therefore, the decision in Porter offers Rhode Island shelter residents some assurance that police may not be able to search shelter rooms without a warrant. However, if a resident consents to police searches under the shelter’s rules or otherwise allows shelter staff to give consent on his or her behalf, a court might find that the Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy does not apply.

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