Privacy advocates applaud Supreme Court ruling on hotel registry searches

Justices ruled Monday that a Los Angeles ordinance, legalizing warrantless demands to inspect hotel guest registries, is unconstitutional.
Justices ruled Monday that a Los Angeles ordinance, legalizing warrantless demands to inspect hotel guest registries, is unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has deemed a Los Angeles ordinance, which legalizes warrantless police demands to inspect hotel and motel guest registries, unconstitutional – a decision which could influence law enforcement protocol in other cities subjecting noncompliant hoteliers to arrest of penalty.

On Monday, Justices came to a decision (PDF) in the Los Angeles v. Patel case in a 5 to 4 vote, holding that the city ordinance (Section 41.49 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code) was “facially unconstitutional because it fails to provide hotel operators with an opportunity for precompliance review,” before being legally obligated to concede to police demands, an court opinion delivered by Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

“A hotel owner who refuses to give an officer access to his or her registry can be arrested on the spot,” the court opinion continued. “The Court has held that business owners cannot reasonably be put to this kind of choice….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 Sotomayor later pointed out that hoteliers “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.”

In a Monday interview with SCMagazine.com, Hanni Fakhoury, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), noted that the Los Angeles v. Patel case stands as an important ruling due to two major factors.

“The first is, the Court ruled that you can bring a ‘facial challenge' under the Fourth Amendment,” Fakhoury said. Allowing facial challenge gives an individual or entity the opportunity to question a law “on its face value, as written, without a specific person who has been harmed by it," he explained.

In January, EFF filed an amicus brief in the case arguing this very point, that the Court has previously allowed Fourth Amendment facial challenges, which question whether a law is unconstitutional as written – and it should allow the same in this case. The Supreme Court's Monday ruling upholds a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2013 (that the city of Los Angeles later appealed), which also sided with hotel and motel owners on the matter of their rights to challenge law enforcement demands.

Fakhoury also addressed the other significant aspect of the ruling,  that “before police get access to these records, they have to get some sort of warrant from police,” he told SCMagazine.com.

“The types of records we are talking about include sensitive data like credit card numbers, addresses and that sort of thing. On that note, it's good that the Court realized the need to parse out whether [the ordinance] was constitutional or not,” Fakhoury added.

Steve Shapiro, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told SCMagazine.com in Tuesday email correspondence that the recent ruling was “an important decision that makes it more difficult for the government to argue for piecemeal challenges to laws and programs that broadly infringe privacy rights, including mass surveillance problems.”

“It thus increases the likelihood of meaningful judicial oversight,” he said.

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