The Supreme Court uplifted privacy rights today by declaring Los Angeles city ordinance requiring hotel operators’ to show a list of registered guests to police on demand illegal and unenforceable. Justices say the ordinance infringed upon hotel operators’ rights under the Fourth Amendment protections. Read more… from Politico, Josh Gerstein.
A sharply-divided Supreme Court boosted privacy rights Monday by striking down as unconstitutional a Los Angeles city ordinance requiring hotel operators to show a list of registered guests to the police on demand.
In a 5-4 decision, the court held that the guest-registry law violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches because the legislation gave hotel managers no chance to seek a ruling from a judge or magistrate before complying with a police request.
The court’s liberals joined with Justice Anthony Kennedy to control the outcome of the case. All the court’s conservative justices aside from Kennedy dissented.
Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the guest-registry measure opened hotel and motel owners and their guests to potentially limitless harassment by the authorities.
“A hotel owner who refuses to give an officer access to his or her registry can be arrested on the spot,” Sotomayor noted. “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 turnover the registry at his or her own peril.”
Sotomayor said it was unlikely that insisting on a subpoena or warrant in most cases would disrupt logical police investigations.
“The City has cited no evidence suggesting that without an ordinance authorizing on-demand searches, hotel operators would regularly refuse to cooperate with the police,” she wrote.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who is sometimes a hawk for Fourth Amendment rights on the court, took a notably different tack Monday.
“The law is constitutional in most, if not all, of its applications,” Scalia wrote in a dissent joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas that called “minor” the intrusion on hotel operations.
Scalia said hotels and motels fit the definition of closely-regulated businesses where the courts have traditionally allowed authorities to enter and examine business records without probable cause or a warrant.
“Reflecting the unique public role of motels and their commercial forebears, governments have long subjected these businesses to unique public duties, and have established inspection regimes to ensure compliance,” Scalia wrote. He noted that, under current law in effect in Los Angeles, “hotels must change bed linens between guests…and they must offer guests the option not to have towels and linens laundered daily.”
Scalia dismissed Sotomayor’s suggestion that police get a subpoena and allow motel owners to challenge it. “This proposal is equal parts 1984 and Alice in Wonderland,” he wrote, insisting that the requirement the court’s majority insisted upon would disrupt investigations into migrant smuggling and child sex trafficking.
Sotomayor noted that police would still be authorized to inspect or seize a guest registry without a subpoena or warrant in such circumstances because of exceptions the courts have applied for “exigent circumstances.”
More than 100 cities and counties have a registry-inspection requirement similar to the one in Los Angeles, according to Scalia’s opinion. The court’s decision Monday does not disturb any city’s right to require hotel proprietors to maintain a guest register — something Los Angeles forces such businesses to maintain for 90 days. The ruling only affects how and when police can access those records.