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K9 Sniffs in Parking Lots

Today’s question is: Can you run a canine in a motel parking lot?

The short answer is yes, you can, and here’s why.  A person that is staying at a hotel does not usually have any reasonable expectation of privacy in the parking lot.  Think about it.  When you go to stay at a Hilton Hotel, a Motel Six, or whatever, you certainly have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your hotel room.

 But in the parking lot, you have no exclusive right of access.  Other people are legally entering the parking lot.  These are usually not gated, but even if they are gated, they’re not just for you.  They’re for anybody who has access to the hotel.  So, generally speaking, there is no privacy interest in the parking lot.  Therefore, the dog is lawfully present.

 If the dog is lawfully present, that is the definition of a free air sniff.  A dog can be run around a vehicle.  (However, I would not touch the vehicle on purpose.  That is another issue, which may be a search under the Fourth Amendment.)

 But as long as the dog is lawfully present, there is no constitutional search occurring. Therefore, when the dog alerts you to the presence of contraband, you have probable cause that can allow you to either go get a search warrant, or you can search that car under the motor vehicle exception.  Even if there’s nobody present in the vehicle, as long as police have lawful access to the vehicle, plus probable cause, and the vehicle appears mobile, a free air sniff is lawful.  That is a motor vehicle exception.  And there you have it!

 Let’s keep these conversations going.  Let’s clear up all these confusions that cops have under the Fourth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment.  Until next time, stay safe!


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