February 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio February 2000 Current Issue
February 2000 lawandplan.gifPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


In a hotel room, a guest has the same right to privacy as he does in his own home

Q: At a recent meeting, I helped distribute the nightly pillow gifts. In one attendee’s room, I noticed drug paraphernalia. Should I have called the police? Alerted hotel management? Help!


A: In a word or two: Ignore it. A hotel guest has the expectation that she will have privacy and peaceful possession of the room. The hotel cannot allow unauthorized third parties to gain access to the guest’s room.

Under case law, the courts have recognized four reasons a hotel employee can enter a guest’s room.

  • For normal maintenance, including housekeeping and to conduct repairs
  • In the presence of imminent danger
  • When the guest has not paid for the room (for instance, his credit card is denied)
  • When the hotel employee knocks and the guest gives permission to enter
  • In addition, I suggest there is a right of access to distribute pillow gifts and the like if done by hotel personnel. This access, however, does not extend to the meeting planner.

    In one classic case of not allowing access, a Louisiana Court of Appeals held that a motel was not liable for damages when it refused to allow the spouse of a guest to enter the room because she was not considered a registered guest. She went to the front desk to request a key for her husband’s room and was denied access by the hotel room clerk.

    The wife’s lawsuit asked for damages for embarrassment and mental anguish. The trial court granted the motel’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, holding, “The hotel had an affirmative duty, stemming from the guest’s right of privacy and peaceful possession, not to allow unregistered and unauthorized third parties to gain access to the rooms of its guests.”

    In cases involving alleged criminal activity, and most particularly a search of the room, the courts have held that police have no right to unlimited access. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that hotel guests are entitled to the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. The police would have to get a search warrant.

    Also, a meeting professional helping with the distribution of pillow gifts could be considered a trespasser because the guest has not invited the planner into the room.

    In our reader’s circumstance, a claim of false arrest could have arisen if she had told the police about the drug paraphernalia and the guest subsequently was apprehended. A police officer might not be conducting a proper search and arrest if the information about the illegal activity came from someone who had no authorization to enter the room.

    Let’s take a look at the situation here.

    1. The planner, who has no authorization to do so, enters the room of a guest.
    2. The planner believes she sees drug implements. The items also could be syringes for a diabetic or someone who otherwise requires some form of injection. Bags of white powder could be sugar for coffee or many other things. The meeting professional is not trained to make these determinations.
    3. Had police undertaken a warrantless search based on the planner’s word, there is no question any such evidence would be thrown out of court. Additionally, the planner’s actions could lead to liability for her and possibly for the meeting sponsor.
    Further, if a planner is given a master key by the hotel, she definitely is in a trespass situation, and the hotel, sponsor and planner could face serious legal repercussions.

    In other words, keep out.

    Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at askhowe@cahners.com.

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