The 4th Amendment: Is privacy ever assured?

The 4th Amendment: Is privacy ever assured?

by Denise Callahan, December 2009

It appears the long arm of the law may be getting quite a bit longer, as courts all the way to D.C. are granting police more power to invade people's privacy. For years now, federal courts have been nibbling away at Fourth Amendment protections, allowing more and more police to intrude into historically protected places. The latest - an 8th Circuit decision - even permits poking into public restrooms.

Here's what happened...

In the wee hours of the night, an Iowa convenience store clerk called local Cedar Rapids police when he suspected a couple of entering the convenience store bathroom to have sex. One must realize of course that his suspicion was no shocker given that the store was located in a red light district. In fact, the location gave his suspicion some reasonability.

Of course, when police did arrive, they knocked on the bathroom door and got no answer. But, it should be noted that they did not announce themselves as police officers...yet.

The police then tapped on the door again, announced themselves as police but still received no response from the two people inside. The only thing the police could hear was the sound of a belt buckling.

After demanding that the couple open the door, one of the officers decided they would have to open the door from the outside using a tool to unlock the door. When they finally picked open the door, one of the two people in the bathroom quickly responded by immediately relocking it.

The officers in turn jimmied the door again and this time the female squeezed out of the restroom while Lonnie Maurice Hill remained inside. What caught the attention of police was that Hill set something metallic down as the officers entered the bathroom. The police then noticed cocaine and marijuana atop the waste basket.

Hill was arrested on the spot and charged with intent to distribute 22.62 grams of crack as well as distribution of .33 grams of crack within 1,000 feet of a school.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the drug evidence arguing that the cops had violated his fourth amendment rights of privacy when they searched the bathroom. But, the district court found that the police had not run afoul of the Constitution. And, Hill was eventually sentenced to 10 years in jail.

The 8th Circuit

The 8th Circuit upheld the district court's decision. The court determined that since Hill decided to share the public restroom with a female companion he forfeited his privacy rights. Whatever the act that occurred inside, it was a use for which the bathroom was not designed, according to the court. Hence, there could be no reasonable expectation of privacy by the two people.

Now don't get all nervous, the court did acknowledge that under normal circumstances law abiding citizens can trust that they enjoy a right to privacy in public restrooms. One has a reasonable expectation of privacy once you enter a bathroom stall for its intended use. The partition of a stall is a wall that is intended to shield you from view. So you have a reasonable expectation that no one will peer at you while you are inside.

The problem with any public restroom is two-fold. One, it is a commercial location. As such, it doesn't have the same privacy level as a home or even home bathroom which is a residential location. Two, there is no expectation that you can stay in the bathroom forever in a commercial location because it is a temporary location. In other words, you eventually will have to surrender it to another customer and leave.

But, the question remains:are there any circumstances where you can share a public bathroom with another person? The simplest answer is...sometimes. In other words, you do retain an expectation of privacy even if you enter a public restroom when you assist a disabled person who may need additional help. You also retain privacy if you share the bathroom with your child. So, in fact, there are special situations that warrant exception.

Yet, ultimately, the problem is that the protection guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment isn't as impenetrable as it once was or at the very least seemed.