Thursday, March 10, 2011 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco, CA — In a letter to police and prosecutors, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi today called for a prohibition on officers using hotel master keys to enter tenant residences.
“For the security and protection of all San Franciscans, I urge you to adopt a strong policy against the use of hotel master keys, so that tenants and guests can rest secure in their homes—whether that be an expensive ocean view apartment or the hotels here, in less expensive zip codes,” Adachi wrote in the March 10 letter to District Attorney George Gascón and Acting Police Chief Jeff Godown.
Adachi’s request comes on the heels of the discovery of several surveillance videos showing police using master keys to unlawfully enter residential motel rooms. Officers illegally searched the rooms before fabricating details about the incidents in sworn police reports.
Also raising concerns are two letters obtained by the Public Defender’s Office detailing both recent and long-ago misconduct at residential motels.
A Jan. 23, 2011 letter written by private attorney Michael McCloskey and sent certified mail to SFPD Northern Station Capt. Anne Mannix claims a police officer used physical intimidation to secure a master key from a Tenderloin hotel owner.
McCloskey, who penned the letter on behalf of Luz Hotel owner Virgilio Candari, states that on Jan. 22, 2001, Officer Kevin Byrne visited the Geary Street property and asked for copies of tenants’ identification.
“When Mr. Candari approached the bulletin board which contained the IDs of registered guests, Officer Byrne pushed him away in a violent gesture,” McCloskey wrote. “Mr. Candari is a slender man, not in good health. He was intimidated and frightened by this physical pushing. Officer Byrne then demanded the key to Room 15, and intimidated Mr. Candari into giving him the master key to all rooms.”
Adachi said Cardari’s account was disturbing because the officer appeared to make Candari an unwitting accomplice to privacy invasions.
“By bullying hotel owners into handing over master keys, police are exposing both the landlords and the city to federal civil rights lawsuits,” he said.
In a second letter, dated March 9, 2011 and addressed to Assistant District Attorney Jerry Coleman, former public defender and current Golden Gate University Law Professor Susan Rutberg details a disturbing 1998 case involving a Turk Street hotel. Police in that case testified they announced themselves and knocked on the door, which was then opened by Rutberg’s client. The hotel manager, however, testified that the officers, Scott Warnke and Joseph Zamagni, obtained a master key from the front desk. A judge found the police testimony “inherently incredible” and dismissed the case.
Several days later, Rutberg’s client reported being stopped and illegally searched on the street by the same officers, who told him, “You got away with this one, but we’ll get you next time.” Rutberg subsequently filed complaints against the officers with the Office of Citizen Complaints. Three allegations were sustained, according to Rutberg: Two allegations of “Conduct Reflecting Discredit to the Department,” for making false statements in the incident report and in a court proceeding; and “Unwarranted Action,” for entering the residence unlawfully.
Adachi said Rutberg’s letter illustrates how long misconduct at residential motels has been tolerated.