Are ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs in hotels enforceable?

| March 19, 2017

How much power is behind a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign? In general, hotel rules state  that guests are entitled to a certain degree of privacy, at least until the checkout time of the agreed departure date. Do Not Disturb signs often work as an effective deterrent, but can they legally keep someone out? Is there any repercussion when a Do Not Disturb sign is ignored? The debate behind “Do Not Disturb” and the enforcement of privacy signs remains a subject of legal dispute.

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The laws regarding hotel privacy leave room for interpretation, even from a congressional point of view.  The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by law, stating that police officers must obtain a warrant before searching or seizing persons, houses, papers, and effects. This constitutional protection also applies to hotel rooms. If a violation is constitutionally challenged, the defendant must prove that there was a reasonable expectation of privacy in the hotel room. This is done by establishing a subjective expectation of privacy in the place searched and society’s willingness to accept the reasonableness of this expectation.

Do Not Disturb Door HangerSo are signs enough to function as a subjective expectation of privacy? Enter a high-profile case involving drugs in a hotel room, called United States vs. Lanier. A man named Denois Lanier rented a room at a Comfort Suites hotel in Michigan. A few minutes after he checked out at 11:00 a.m., a housekeeper entered the room, which had a “Do Not Disturb” sign, to find cocaine and a scale. She called the police, and Lanier was arrested upon his return to the hotel. A federal grand jury charged Lanier with distributing crack and powder cocaine. Lanier challenged the search and arrest as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, another court case ruling, United States v. Allen states, “once a hotel guest’s rental period has expired or been lawfully terminated, the guest does not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in the hotel room or in any article therein of which the hotel lawfully takes possession.” Since Lanier checked out, he had no reasonable expectation of privacy. Once the hotel learned of the presence of drugs in the room, it had every right to grant access to the police to determine whether the room was being used for illegal purposes.

Still, signs do hold weight in keeping the peace. Posting a Do Not Disturb sign’ will be effective in upholding a guest’s ‘reasonable’ right to privacy. Primarily, the signs help inform housekeepers that they should return another time.

Besides the guest, only hotel staff is permitted into hotel rooms for cleaning and maintenance.  If the hotel staff suspects illegal behavior, they should call the police rather than investigate themselves. Otherwise, they risk invading their guests’ legal expectation of privacy, and any evidence they discover might be considered inadmissible in court.

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