Supreme Court: L.A. Hotel Owners Can’t Be Forced To Turn Over Guest Info Without A Warrant

Should the police, without a warrant, be able to walk into a hotel and get the names, addresses, license plate numbers, and other information about any guest who stayed there in the last three months? And should hotel owners face criminal charges if they fail to comply? The City of Los Angeles thinks so, but this morning the Supreme Court disagreed.

Los Angeles Municipal Code §41.49 [PDF] requires hotel operators to maintain records for all guests for 90 days, and that this information “shall be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection,” ideally at a “time and in a manner that minimizes any interference with the operation of the business.”

Additionally, if a hotel operator fails to make these records available to LAPD, they face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

This case goes back to 2003, when a group of motel operators sued the City, alleging that the ordinance — and the threat of criminal charges — was a warrantless search in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.

A trial court ruled in favor of the City, saying hotel owners lacked an expectation of privacy about these records, but that decision was reversed by Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012. The panel held that these records are the private property of the hotel owners and that an owner has “the right to exclude others from prying into the[ir] contents.” The appeals court also found that the City ordinance was facially unconstitutional as it required owners to turn over this information, under penalty of law, without judicial review.

In appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, the City argued that a facial challenge — an attack on a law itself, as opposed to a particular application — to a statute authorizing warrantless searches must fail because it will never be unconstitutional in every possible application.

The City also claimed that the ordinance itself was “an adequate substitute for a warrant. By explicitly requiring hotel owners to maintain certain records and to make the required records available for police inspection, it advises hotel owners that inspections are conducted pursuant to law and are not discretionary acts of law enforcement.”

In arguing that the ordinance is not unconstitutional in all applications, the City gave examples of police needing to access hotel records in emergency situations, or where the owner consents to turning over the info.

But in today’s 5-4 SCOTUS ruling [PDF], the majority noted that these examples miss the point.

To decide whether a statute meets the standard of being facially unconstitutional, “the Court has considered only applications of the statute in which it actually authorizes or prohibits conduct,” writes Justice Sotomayor for the majority. She was joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan.

Thus, the above examples from the City are situations where the ordinance isn’t even required.

“[W]hen addressing a facial challenge to a statute authorizing warrantless searches, the proper focus of the constitutional inquiry is searches that the law actually authorizes, not those for which it is irrelevant,” writes Sotomayor. “If exigency or a warrant justifies an officer’s search, the subject of the search must permit it to proceed irrespective of whether it is authorized by statute. Statutes authorizing warrantless searches also do no work where the subject of a search has consented.”

Though SCOTUS has never prescribed the exact form that precompliance review of a search must take, the majority notes that it “has held that absent consent, exigent circumstances, or the like, in order for an administrative search to be constitutional, the subject of the search must be afforded an opportunity to obtain precompliance review before a neutral decisionmaker.”

With regard to the ordinance’s threat of criminal penalties for hotel owners who fail to comply, the opinion points to the 1967 decision in Camara v Municipal Court, in which SCOTUS held that the Fourth Amendment held that a San Francisco man’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when he was arrested for refusing to allow repeated warrantless searches of his building.

Without some sort of opportunity for independent review, Sotomayor says the L.A. City 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. 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 own peril.”

The majority doesn’t say that it’s unconstitutional for a hotel owner to face criminal charges for noncompliance, just that if the City is going to dangle that threat of arrest, the owner must have the chance to have the merits of their refusal reviewed.

Today’s SCOTUS ruling affirms the Ninth Circuit ruling. The LAPD halted enforcing the warrantless searches in 2014 pending the outcome of this case.

Chief Justice Roberts — along with Justices Thomas, Alito, and Scalia — dissented.

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