Crime at Budget Motels

A budget motel can be an epicenter of crime in a neighborhood. Problems at these "no-tell motels" can range from loud parties and public disorder to drug lab and prostitution operations.

Joseph Petrocelli Headshot

A budget motel can be an epicenter of crime in a neighborhood. Problems at these "no-tell motels" can range from loud parties and public disorder to drug lab and prostitution operations.

Unfortunately, it's easy for a small motel to slip into a spiral that will make it seedy and crime-ridden. Once a motel gains a troublesome reputation, it attracts a wide variety of criminal elements that drive out legitimate business. The absence of legitimate businesses presents more opportunity for disorder, and soon a local police department has to deal with a whole neighborhood enveloped in different types of crime.

Why Do Criminals Like Budget Motels?

The criminal element is drawn to budget motels for a number of reasons. No-tell motels offer low rates and the freedom to do what you please. There is little or no security and many of the other occupants (who are there for their own dubious reasons) are not likely to call authorities. Consequently, the motel becomes a haven for prostitutes, drug users, drug dealers, and locals looking for a place to hold a loud party. No one actually "lives" there, so no one cares if property is damaged.

The budget motel's reputation as a center of trouble belies its humble beginnings. As motor travel became more popular in the 1930s, families used the automobile to see the country. Motels, a combination of the word "motor" and "hotel," served as a family friendly rest spot for weary travelers; they were cheaper than hotels and better equipped than campgrounds. The greatest selling point of a motel, the fact that a traveler could pull right up to the room and enter and exit unobserved, has now made the motel a perfect location to conduct criminal activity.

The Business of the No-Tell Motel

The first step to developing a police strategy to reduce the criminal impact of no-tell motels in your neighborhood is to understand the nature of the beast.

No-tell motels are not like Motel 6 and other economical chains and independent motels that offer people an inexpensive stay in a sparse but relatively clean room. Travelers don't really use them at all.

Research indicates that up to 80 percent of some budget motels' clientele is made up of local residents. Furthermore, guests who live within 30 miles of the motel are more likely to become involved in disorder incidents than regular travelers.

Granted, some of these locals are there for legitimate purposes; they may be seasonal farm or construction workers who use the motel for several weeks at a time. But more likely, the budget motel is occupied by prostitutes, drug packagers, drug dealers, pimps, and smugglers.

Ripe Conditions for Criminal Activity

Motels are favored by criminals over apartments because they do not require first-and-last-month rent. Also, the owner of a budget motel will rent a room without a background check. Many times identification is not even required by customers paying cash.

As for the name and address on the registration card, that stuff is rarely checked. So for under $50 a night, a criminal can have a furnished room, complete with heat, hot water, and cable television.

Another reason that criminals love the no-tell motel is that these businesses don't have large staffs so no one is really watching what they do. Budget motels usually employ one or two people per shift. Rarely is there a security force.

The Source of Many a Call

The lack of house security at budget motels is one of the reasons why these businesses tend to be a big problem for police.

Without a patrol response plan in place, the budget motel's staff or guests may continually call the police, requiring a frequent and often fruitless response. This is why it's important for your agency to formulate and implement a plan to handle disorder at the budget motels.

The first step is to work with the motel staff and ask them to require identification to receive a room. A front desk clerk should note some pertinent information (Social Security number, driver's license number, etc.) before a room is rented. Upon renting a room, the guest should have to read and sign a list of rules. One of the rules should be that all guests must check in at the desk and provide proper identification.

The motel owners should also be encouraged to lock remote entrances, forcing all visitors and guests to pass through the front desk. You can also advise motel management of the procedure for obtaining restraining orders to exclude troublesome guests from returning to the premises. Then you can maintain and disseminate a list of troublesome guests to all motels in the jurisdiction.

Suggest that the motel staff provide all registered guests with a parking pass so an officer on patrol will know who belongs and who is a guest. All vehicles should be required to park "nose in" so the rear plate is displayed to an officer on patrol. Then you can run the license plates to determine if the guests are visitors to the area or locals looking for a location to engage in questionable activities. Owners of vehicles spotted parked in the motel lot can be advised by mail that their cars were observed in a high crime area.

Chula Vista PD's Patrol Response Model

You can also train motel staff how to identify a suspicious guest. One police agency committed to making budget motels safer is the Chula Vista (Calif.) Police Department. Chula Vista officers train motel staff to look for the following indicators of criminal activity:

  • Guests with local addresses who plan a long-term stay
  • Guests who have no luggage or guests who have a lot of luggage for a brief stay
  • Guests refusing to allow maid service to enter the room
  • Guests who request special units, usually out of the way or out of sight
  • Guests who check in for only a few hours
  • Female guests who entertain a constant flow of male guests

You can hear an audio presentation on the Chula Vista PD's program at

Without proper enforcement a budget motel can become a comfortable center of operation for several different criminal enterprises. Only by developing a good plan and implementing it through proactive patrol can a police department prevent a budget motel from becoming a center of disorder, chaos, and crime.

To read more on this topic, check out "Disorder at Budget Motels" by Karin Schmerler,

About the Author
Joseph Petrocelli Headshot
Detective (Ret.)
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