Supreme Court sides with privacy rights in Los Angeles hotel case

The decision, in a case from Los Angeles, marks continuation of a trend of the high court expanding protections against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Television news crew wait for the US Supreme Court to release decisions on cases it heard this term, outside the court building in Washington on Monday. Over the next week, the court will release its decisions on some of the most-watched cases of the term, including rulings on gay marriage, the death penalty, and the Affordable Care Act.

The US Supreme Court on Monday struck down part of a Los Angeles ordinance that required hotel and motel owners to allow police to routinely examine guest registry information on demand.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said the ordinance violated Fourth Amendment protections by failing to provide hotel operators with an opportunity to challenge the police action before turning over the customer information.

“Absent an opportunity for precompliance review, the ordinance creates an intolerable risk that searches authorized by it will exceed statutory limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion.

“Even if a hotel has been searched 10 times a day, every day, for three months, without any violation being found, the operator can only refuse to comply with an officer’s demand to turn over the registry at his or her peril,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

The decision marks the continuation of a trend in recent years of the high court expanding protections against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

The decision stems from a 2003 lawsuit filed by a group of motel operators and a lodging association challenging the mandatory record inspection requirement in the Los Angeles ordinance.

Los Angles officials defended the measure, saying the police inspections provided a deterrent to criminals who might otherwise use motels as cover for illegal activities such as prostitution, human smuggling, and drug trafficking.

Under the provision, hotel and motel operators are required to maintain a registry of each customer’s name, address, vehicle information, date and time of arrival, scheduled departure, rate charged, and method of payment.

The ordinance also required that the registry “shall be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection.” It is this second part of the ordinance that was struck down by the high court.

Under that provision, any hotel or motel operator who refused to provide the registry for police inspection faced up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.   

Sotomayor stressed that the court’s decision was a narrow one. “To be clear, we hold only that a hotel owner must be afforded 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 said.

Police could satisfy that requirement, Sotomayor suggested, by issuing an administrative subpoena. If a hotel owner believed the subpoena was motivated by an illicit purpose, the owner could take the issue to an administrative judge.

Sotomayor said such challenges would likely be rare. In most cases, hotel owners readily comply with law enforcement requests to review registry information. But that fact doesn’t reduce the need for a means for owners to object, she said.

“The availability of precompliance review alters the dynamic between the officer and the hotel to be searched, and reduces the risk that officers will use these administrative searches as a pretext to harass business owners,” Sotomayor said.

In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said that in his view it was “eminently reasonable” to allow police officers to flip through a guest register without first providing an opportunity for an objecting motel operator to seek judicial review.

He noted that municipalities in 41 states have similar provisions allowing police to spot check motel registries. Justice Scalia said such spot checks help deter criminals from using motels for crime.

“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,” he wrote.

Joining Scalia’s dissent were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate dissent, also joined by Justice Thomas.

Sotomayor’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

The case was City of Los Angeles v. Patel (13-1175).

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