Supreme Court to Hear Hotel Privacy Case

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Oct 22, 2014

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This week, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear arguments about whether or not a city may pass a law that requires hotels and motels to provide guest information to law enforcement without a warrant.  Specifically at issue is a Los Angeles ordinance that authorizes police to demand hotel guest data before obtaining a warrant, but the Supreme Court’s ruling will impact searches in hotels across the country.

Los Angeles Ordinance Allows Warrantless Hotel Records Search

In 2006, the city of Los Angeles passed an ordinance that required hotels to gather and hold onto guest demographic information including name, address, the number of people staying in the room, vehicle information, room number, method of payment, and the dates during which the guest stayed.  Further, the ordinance required:

The record shall be kept on the hotel premises in the guest reception or guest check-in area or in an office adjacent to that area. The record shall be maintained at that location on the hotel premises for a period of 90 days from and after the date of the last entry in the record and shall be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection. Whenever possible, the inspection shall be conducted at a time and in a manner that minimizes any interference with the operation of the business.

Under the LA law, hotels face misdemeanor charges if they fail to turn over guest records to police when asked, meaning that law enforcement can access guest information at any time without the hotel’s consent.  In defending its ordinance, Los Angeles pointed out that dozens of similar laws exist across the country, and exist because they, “Expressly help police investigate crimes such as prostitution and gambling, capture dangerous fugitives and even authorize federal law enforcement to examine these registers, an authorization which can be vital in the immediate aftermath of a homeland terrorist attack.”

LA Hotel Owners Claim Search Laws is Unconstitutional

After the law was passed, LA motel owners Naranjibhai and Ramilaben Patel filed a lawsuit alleging the ordinance violated their hotel’s 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The 4th Amendment provides protection from warrantless searches by law enforcement, which, with limited exception, prevents police officers from invading privacy without first showing probable cause to do so.  According to the Patels, hotels have a commercial interest in the privacy of their guest records that is protected by the 4th Amendment from warrantless police searches, and under this interpretation of the constitution, police would need to request a judge issue a search warrant before they can require hotel operators to provide any information about guests. 

The Patels’ challenge is unique in that they were not subject to police action under the ordinance at the time they filed the lawsuit.  Legal challenges issued before the plaintiff is affected by the law are known as “facial challenges,” and are very difficult to win because plaintiffs allege that the challenged legislation is unconstitutional as written. When ruling on a facial challenge,a court will not have a fact pattern to aid its decision, so should the plaintiff succeed it means that there are no circumstances in which the law would not violate constitutional rights of any party affected by it.  Given the broad nature of the challenge, if the Supreme Court agrees with the Patels in this case then the Justices would not only invalidate the Los Angeles law but any other similar ordinance across the country.

9th Circuit Invalidates LA Hotel Search Ordinance

Los Angeles v Patel came to the Supreme Court by way of the 9th Circuit, which ruled that the LA ordinance is unconstitutional in a 7-4 split decision.  Because the law provides no opportunity for judicial review before police gather information from hotel registries, the 9th Circuit majority determined that it gave police unreasonable authority of search and seizure and was unconstitutional on its face.  According to the 9th Circuit, police always need a warrant when demanding hotel owners turn over private information provided by guests.

In dissent, the minority of the 9th Circuit felt that a facial challenge was inappropriately broad, particularly because the LA ordinance was vague in specifying exactly what police and cannot do.  The minority dissent argued that the law may be appropriately challenged by a party affected by it, but holding it to be unconstitutional on its face went too far because there may exist circumstances in which the police conducted an appropriate warrantless search of hotel guest information.

When reviewing the Patel lawsuit, the Supreme Court will not only determine the constitutionality of the LA ordinance, but will also determine whether or not hotels generally have a privacy right that protects customer information from warrantless searches and seizures.

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