Room Service

Motels are often the first destination for parolees and sex offenders upon their release from incarceration. And that makes for an unfortunate dynamic.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

An eroding job market. Dropping consumer confidence. Bank foreclosures. Realities such as these have many economists projecting a recession; others say we're already there. One thing is inarguable: In these tough times, the historical home away from home—a motel—increasingly is home for many economically displaced families.

Motels are also often the first destination for parolees and sex offenders upon their release from incarceration. And that makes for an unfortunate dynamic.

The truth is that motels have always been problematic for law enforcement. Transitory populations and apathetic management make motels havens for prostitution, truancy, and human smuggling. In recent years, even the war on drugs has had an impact: Rather than risk forfeiture and seizure of their own assets, drug traffickers have moved their businesses from their homes and cars to hotel and motel rooms.

The more sordid histories of temporary lodging facilities cannot be denied. Over the years, lodges have been host to infamous shootouts between law enforcement and such criminals as infamous asBonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger. Today, they are routinely exploited as de facto brothels, meth labs, and gaming establishments. They also play host to gang summits and criminal getaways.

Taking Charge

A keen eye can easily spot a problem hotel. One red flag is the inordinate number of calls for service they generate. It also helps to know the demographic of your area motels. What types of vehicles occupy the parking lot? How transitory are they? Heavy vehicle traffic can be an indicator of everything from extramarital delinquents to drug trafficking.

When law enforcement officers take initiative and target motel undesirables, they can dramatically impact problems generated both at the motels and elsewhere.

When one of its motels became a crime haven, the Reno Police Department created a Motel Interdiction Team. On its first operation at one area motel, the team found that people in 18 of the 25 occupied rooms were engaged in criminal activity.

Officer Keith Pleich, a member of the Motel Interdiction Team, says that is no longer the case.

"The motel has cleaned up its act on multiple fronts. Of course, we used a lot of nuisance abatement strategies—like health and safety code and fire code enforcement—to help give them incentive," explains Pleich. "In response, the motel management cleaned up its act on multiple fronts, even getting new furniture for the rooms. They've gotten more desirable clients and our calls to the location have dropped."

Developing and maintaining good relationships with motel management has collateral benefits for all involved.

Minnesota Officers Jeff Gottstein and Jeff Snyder started the Woodbury Police Department's CRASH Unit. CRASH—Creating Relationships and Safe Hotels—has had a profound effect on crime within Woodbury's jurisdiction.

"We educated management, their staff, and security. We trained them on their legal responsibilities both to us and their customers," says Gottstein. "We taught them what to look for."

Gottstein routinely keeps local motel management up to date on what is happening crime-wise via newsletters.

"These newsletters have names and pictures of some of our area ID theft victims," Gottstein explains. "I get them out to our local motels and hotels. More than once, management has recognized a victim's name when someone attempted to check in under it. That's when they've given us a heads up."

"Hotels have to recognize that they're doing themselves a big favor when working with us," Gottstein says. "Case law dictates that they have to take reasonable precautions for the safety of their registrants. In incidents where they have failed to do so, there have been large civil damages."

Mutual Accommodations

Law enforcement officers have a vested interest in this equation, as well. For if cops take an ostrich approach to motel-related problems—effectively rolling to such locations only on calls, then only handling things that they absolutely have to—they help foster the very crime they're trying to curtail.

Like all relationships, some reciprocity is to be anticipated and motel managers can reasonably expect you to scratch their backs from time to time. Among their biggest concerns are lodgers who overstay their welcomes. By assisting management and persuading undesirables to vacate their rooms and by documenting necessary reports (e.g., vandalism and thefts) for insurance claims, you have an opportunity to develop a rapport with them. If you're willing to help them, they're probably going to be similarly accommodating of you in the future.

But just remember, not all motel management is on the up and up. While many municipalities require hotel management to obtain identification of their guests, many do not in practice, accepting cash per diems and illegible signatures on the registry.

Fortunately, some suspects compensate for such laxities by signing their real names. Murder suspects Charles McCoy Jr. and Andrew Anthony Guerrero were arrested in states other than where they committed their crimes. In each case, they were arrested at motels where they checked in under their own names.

This is where personal initiative—and officer-friendly statutes, such as those in Minnesota, which mandate registry access to law enforcement—can pay huge dividends.

Both Pleich and Gottstein report that they have found wanted homicide suspects by just looking over registry books and running the names. Monthly checks of registered guests often revealed local and out-of-state warrants. Armed with such information, they were able to prepare workups of the subjects' criminal histories.

In Woodbury's experience, Gottstein often found the names of nearby St. Paul residents in the city's hotel registries.

"Now, why would someone drive a mile and a half and check into a hotel room?"

Gottstein answers his own question.

"Well, quite a bit of the time it's because they don't want to bring attention to their residence with the stuff they plan to be doing."

Getting In and Out Alive

Which is more important: Getting inside the room, or getting the person out? Often, the answer is dictated by the nature of the crime involved.

Pleich relies heavily on consent searches. Usually, the very thing that precipitates the request—e.g., plain view contraband—can be used as leverage for it. If a search warrant is required, he gets one.

Depending upon the situation, consideration should be given to having management call the suspect's room prior to conducting a door knock. The refusal of a known occupant to answer the phone, or exiting the room upon answering it, gives officers time to consider their approach. If the suspect is known to be armed, evacuations of nearby rooms should be effected prior to initiating contact.

Initiating that contact on the narrow walkway of a second floor landing can be dangerous. Such confined space figured into a crossfire situation that resulted in the death of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Deputy Mike Arruda when deputies came under attack after knocking on the door of a motel guest.

Multi-unit dwellings also offer unique challenges. Collateral concerns include not only how your actions may impact innocent others, but whether or not those others are so innocent. Adjoining rooms are popular with suspects, particularly crime crews. One telltale sign is rooms that have been checked out in the names and with the credit of identity theft victims.

Courts have found that entries effected through the use of deception and accomplished without force do not constitute a "breaking," which requires officers to first announce their authority and purpose. As such, ruses have been successful in getting people to open doors at motels. Cops have called and asked a guest to come down to the lobby, impersonated pizza delivery men, had a hotel security guard knock and pretend he was there to check on the air conditioning, among other deceptions. Cops have also contacted occupants with the pretext of investigating a possible crime such as a hit and run of the registrant's car in the parking lot.

Whatever you do, don't overplay your hand. Conning a well-intentioned manager into opening a door that neither you nor he has a right to open can find you losing your case and him being held civilly liable.

"Officer safety is number one," says Mike Hand, officer in charge of the Jackson County (Mo.) Task Force. Sometimes we'll simply wait the guy out. We'll set up a remote surveillance and take the guy down as he's leaving the location. We can always get evidence another day."

All the same, Hand recommends that officers be cross-trained in tactical entries. Even if it's incident to a low-key "knock and talk," it's best to be accompanied by a partner when you initiate entry into a motel room. Hand notes that with two-man deployments, the first man will usually start with the bathroom, as it's the most likely place for evidence disposal and for someone to hide while still affording some degree of mobility (as opposed to under the bed or in a closet).

When Denton, Texas, authorities found out that they had a murder suspect holed up in a motel room with his son, so did local news media that were monitoring police radio frequencies. Denton Police Officer Jim Bryan says that by establishing an off-site venue where news media would not interfere with the agency's operation and requesting a coverage blackout until the situation was successfully resolved, the agency was able to successfully take down the suspect when he exited his motel room the following morning. The news media got their shot without the officers having to take theirs.

One never knows what one might come in contact with in a motel room—or whether or not they will ever know. Las Vegas police officers who responded to a rescue call didn't realize that they may have been exposed to ricin until a relative of the man came forth after the incident.

But by keeping motel-related problems in check, law enforcement agencies help protect the legitimate patrons therein.

Check In

Many motel interdiction teams are remarkably nuclear; in other words, they have to work closely with other specialized units. But it also points to the viability of what can be accomplished at the patrol officer level if an officer puts his mind to it. Indeed, Gottstein and Snyder—who have at times made more arrests than the rest of their department—operate the team as a collateral responsibility to their regular patrol duties.

So stop by motels. Do some knock and talks. Have management look at your wanted posters. Review the registration books. Ask them to keep an eye on what's being dumped in the dumpsters and what maids are finding in their rooms. Educate them to be on the lookout for red flags such as chemical precursors. And get educated, in turn, by asking them for maps or diagrams of their property so you can see what rooms are common to one another.

Such intel can be more than just arrest friendly; it can be a matter of officer safety.

For instance, some motels provide their guests with video surveillance of the parking lots, supposedly so that they may see that their cars parked therein remain unmolested. But the feed also avails occupants a means of viewing your approach to the location. Knowing such things can be the difference between life and death.

Finally, if you are going to start targeting hotels, maintain an ongoing dialogue with prosecutors and judges. Let them know what you are trying to accomplish. Keep logs of all names that you run, as well as all cars that you run. Your ability to substantiate an unbiased approach to your work will work to your defense against allegations of racial profiling, etc.

If you seize the initiative by checking out the local inns, you may find that the only reservations criminals have when it comes to your jurisdiction's motels will be about staying in them.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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