The New Hampshire Supreme Court has held that it was legal for the police to enter into the common area of a rooming house, even though they did not have a warrant. The case is State v. Robert Grimpson Smith.
The case arose in Lebanon in 2014 when a woman collapsed in front of a rooming house. The police came to investigate. While speaking with them she she called out for Mr. Smith.
The front door to this rooming house is usually wide open. The residents use a shared kitchen and bathrooms and they can lock their rooms. A police officer walked right into the front of the rooming house to check on Mr. Smith. He looked into room number one, which had its door wide open, and saw Mr. Smith lying on the floor unconscious. The officer called for the paramedics to check on him. The paramedics and police officer entered the room and while the paramedics treated Mr. Smith, the police officer found a syringe and spoon commonly used to take heroin.
The police charged Mr. Smith with drug possession. He argued it was illegal for the police to enter the rooming house without a search warrant. Normally a person’s home gets the highest level of constitutional protection because a person has a high expectation of privacy in their home. This includes apartments and hotel rooms. Certainly the individual rooms in a rooming house are private homes. Courts disagree, however, about whether the common areas are private.
The key question for the New Hampshire Supreme Court came down to the specific nature of this rooming house. Was it closer to shared house where everyone lives together? Or was it more like an apartment building with separate individual units?
In looking into this specific rooming house, it was true that the individual units did not have their own bathroom or kitchen. This made it seem closer to a shared house. On the other hand, there were a large number of units (8 to 10). The owners locked their individual units. The exterior door was open most of the time. So in total the Court found that this was closer to an apartment building. The individual tenants did not have an expectation of privacy in the common areas. It was not illegal, therefore, for the police officer to enter the front door without a warrant. Once he saw Mr. Smith unconscious in plain view, he had the right to enter the room to check on him since it was an emergency. The drug items were in plain view.
The Court’s written opinion made it clear that this was a very close case. And courts have gone in different directions on this issue. So, the takeaway is that, if facing a criminal charge, it is worth investigating the legality of any search and seizure that resulted in evidence. If the Judge finds that the evidence was obtained illegally, it cannot be used at trial.