Supreme Court blocks warrantless searches of hotel registries

Supreme Court blocks warrantless searches of hotel registries
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a municipal law forcing hotels to give police information about their guests without a warrant is unconstitutional, in a major win for privacy advocates.

In a 5-4 decision, justices declared that the 1899 Los Angeles law violated the Constitution by depriving hotel owners of a chance to challenge the ruling.

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The 116-year-old law “penalizes them for declining to turn over their records without affording them any opportunity for precompliance review,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the decision.

“A hotel owner who refuses to give an officer access to his or her registry can be arrested on the spot,” she added. “The court has held that business owners cannot reasonably be put to this kind of choice."

The Los Angeles law required hotel operators to record and keep information about guests’ names, addresses, vehicles and other data for 90 days, and make it available to the police without a warrant. A group of motel owners sued in 2003, charging that the law violates the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy.

The case, City of Los Angeles v. Patel, had been closely followed by privacy advocates, who thought that it might give justices a chance to touch on broader government powers to search companies’ records.

In the court’s ruling, Sotomayor was sure to highlight the “narrow” nature of the decision.

A hotel owner only needs to be given “an opportunity to have a neutral decisionmaker review an officer’s demand to search the registry before he or she faces penalties for failing to comply,” she wrote. “Actual review need only occur in those rare instances where a hotel operator objects to turning over the registry.”

Still, American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer called the decision “a big deal,” and other privacy backers are likely to take heart.

The decision was split along traditional ideological lines. Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined Sotomayor’s decision, while conservative-leaning Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts opposed it.

In a dissenting opinion, Scalia said motels are like other “closely regulated businesses” — such as gun dealers or mines — that should be exempted from the Constitution’s warrant requirement. Because motels are common destinations for all manner of criminals, the government’s tight controls for the industry allow it to search records without a warrant, he argued.

“The private pain and public costs imposed by drug dealing, prostitution, and human trafficking are beyond contention, and motels provide an obvious haven for those who trade in human misery,” Scalia wrote.

“The warrantless inspection requirement provides a necessary incentive for motels to maintain their registers thoroughly and accurately: They never know when law enforcement might drop by to inspect.”