The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1 Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents. Generally, this means that the government — police officer, special agents, among others — cannot search one’s property unless they have a warrant from a judge. There are numerous exceptions that allow the government to forgo getting a warrant before searching a person or place, such as the “automobile exception,” which allows an officer to search a car pulled over during a traffic stop if the officer has probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of crime will be found in the car. But what about a bar, restaurant, or carryout with a liquor permit: Can the government search those businesses without a warrant?
Ohio liquor permit holders are subject to many laws and administrative regulations. One of those regulations, Ohio Administrative Code 4301:1-1-62 (Rule 62), requires a liquor permit holder to allow the government to inspect the premises, at any time, for any lawful purpose. That means police officers, agents of the Ohio Investigative Unit, and employees of the Ohio Division of Liquor Control may enter a permit premises, any time, and start snooping around.
Even more than “inspecting,” officers are allow to search a liquor permit premises, without a warrant, but only for the limited purpose of determining compliance with the Ohio’s liquor laws and regulations. Under Ohio Administrative Code 4301:1-1-79, if an officer has “reasonable suspicion” that the permit premises will contain evidence of liquor law or regulatory violations, then the officer can dig through the permit premises, including:
- Books and records
- Locked closets
- Filing cabinets
- Cellars, attics, storage rooms
- DVRs, security cameras, and point of sale systems.
Reasonable suspicion is lower than probable cause, which is the standard required for an officer to arrest a person or obtain a search warrant from a judge. Reasonable suspicion generally means specific and articulable facts that criminal activity is present. Therefore, even if the officer doesn’t have enough evidence to get a search warrant from a judge, they can still search the liquor permit premises if they come up with reasonable suspicion.
The only real limits to these warrantless searches are: (1) They’re limited to checking compliance with Ohio liquor law and regulations and (2) they can only be conducted when the premises is open for business or in operation.
Any permit holder who faces a surprise warrantless search or inspection should immediately contact an attorney. Contact The Stavroff Law Firm today.