By: Shoshana Walter
After a mentally ill man was shot and killed by a police officer inside his residential hotel room, the San Francisco Police Department has clarified its policy on entering homes: All residents, including those living in hotels, have the same privacy rights.
Amid little fanfare, Police Chief Greg Suhr admonished the officer and issued a training memo to the department that outlines the law. The memo states that officers are allowed to enter a residence only when there is an immediate safety threat, to prevent the destruction of evidence, when the officers are in hot pursuit of a suspect or if the residence is a crime scene.
Officers also are allowed to enter with a resident’s consent, with a warrant, to provide emergency medical assistance or if the resident’s probation or parole conditions permit searches. After the memo was distributed in July, officers were required to sign a statement that they had read and understood it.
“Members are reminded that individuals have an expectation of privacy in their residences,” Suhr wrote. “Tenants of hotels, including single room occupancy hotels, possess the same constitutional rights and protections related to law enforcement entry into their hotel room.”
The memo was a quiet resolution to a tragic case. In 2010, a patrol officer shot and killed a mentally ill man inside his residential hotel room after the manager unlocked the man’s door.
The officer, Kimberly Koltzoff, had been responding to a noise complaint. When she arrived at the Granada Hotel, the manager led her to the room of Michael Lee, a mentally ill man with a history of hostility toward the police. Instead of knocking, the manager unlocked Lee’s door, and Koltzoff walked inside. Moments later, the officer shot Lee.
San Francisco’s Office of Citizen Complaints, which investigates complaints against officers, determined earlier this year that Koltzoff had violated department policy by illegally entering Lee’s residence. According to the group’s report, Suhr determined that Koltzoff had received inadequate training and did not discipline her for the shooting. Although officers are trained in search and seizure law, Suhr ordered Koltzoff to receive new training and issued the memo to ensure all officers were familiar with the requirements pertaining to residential hotels.
“The point is, you need to be treating these single-room occupancy hotel residents the same way you treat anybody who lives in a single-family dwelling,” said Joyce Hicks, executive director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, which helped draft the memo. “You have the same rights.”
San Francisco police officers have come under increasing criticism for using room keys to enter residential hotel rooms, a practice that led attorneys to accuse the department of abusing the city’s poorest residents. Last year, several hotel managers told The Bay Citizen that they regularly gave police officers the room keys because they believed it helped combat crime, which is common in some residential hotels.
The FBI is investigating several cases after public defender Jeff Adachi released a series of surveillance videos last year that allegedly showed San Francisco police officers illegally entering and searching residential hotel rooms. The videos show them taking items that were never booked into evidence or mentioned in police reports. In some cases, the officers had used hotel passkeys to get into the rooms.
As a result of the videos, prosecutors dropped hundreds of cases, and many of the officers were placed on desk duty. The San Francisco Police Officers Association has reported that several officers have been called to testify as witnesses before a federal grand jury.
Adachi, who had been lobbying the Board of Supervisors to pass legislation barring police officers from using hotel room keys, said Suhr’s memo satisfied his concerns.
“We don’t want a situation where police can enter anyone’s residence without a reason,” he said. “And we certainly don’t want a different standard to apply just because they live in single-room occupancy hotels.”
But Adachi, who said he has not seen any recent cases, still expressed skepticism.
“It remains to be seen whether or not the practice will end,” he said.