Legal Alerts Jun 23, 2015

Hotels Need Not Provide Guest Registry to Law Enforcement

U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Los Angeles City Ordinance Requiring Hotel Operators to Provide Guest Register Records to Police Officers on Demand

Hotels Need Not Provide Guest Registry to Law Enforcement

Like a host of municipalities, the City of Los Angeles has an ordinance that requires hotel operators to record information about guests (aka, a guest registry) and to keep that information on premises for 90 days. The ordinance further requires a hotel operator to allow the police to inspect the register upon demand. Refusal to do so constitutes a misdemeanor offense.

A group of hotel operators and a lodging association brought action in federal court asserting the ordinance was facially invalid under the Fourth Amendment based on their expectation of privacy in their own records. After that claim was rejected by the district court, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed and found the ordinance was facially invalid. The U.S. Supreme Court granted review of that decision.

In a 5-4 decision issued Monday in City of Los Angeles v. Patel, the Supreme Court agreed with the Ninth Circuit and held that the City’s ordinance was facially invalid under the Fourth Amendment. It is important to sort what the Court found invalid from what it held a government entity could lawfully enact and enforce, and how that process ought to proceed.

First, the Court held that the City could require hotel operators to make and keep the records required by the ordinance, and could require hotel operators to provide access to these records to the police when requested. However, the Court held that the police can compel hotel operators to turn over these records only when the police have a proper administrative warrant, including one issued by the police, themselves.

The Court explained that this kind of ordinance authorizes an “administrative search” — a search based on “special needs” outside the goal of the general interest in crime control. Once the ordinance is placed in the context of an “administrative search,” it is subject to the requirement of affording the hotel operators an opportunity to obtain precompliance review before a neutral decision maker. Because the Los Angeles ordinance failed to provide for such pre-compliance review, it facially violated the Fourth Amendment.

So, how would such precompliance review work in practice? The Court provided a road map. If an officer requests to review hotel registry records and that request is declined, the officer can issue an administrative subpoena right in the field. The warrant would not require the traditional showing of probable cause or even assert that the ordinance is being infringed. The officer would then serve the administrative warrant on the operator. If the operator refused to comply with the warrant by providing the records,  the officer could seize and secure —“guard” —the records, if the officer had cause to believe the operator might tamper with the registry while review is sought and obtained. The operator would then seek expedited review of the administrative warrant before a neutral decision maker, likely an administrative law judge, who would simply determine whether the warrant is enforceable — that is, whether it was issued for a proper purpose consistent with the ordinance and not, for example, for purposes of harassing the operator.

For more information about this decision and its impact on your organization, please contact one of the attorney authors of this legal alert listed at right in the Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.

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