Do Not Disturb: SCOTUS Holds Warrantless Searches of Hotel Guest Records Unconstitutional

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Attorney, Jeffrey Hark

On June 22, 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court decided City of Los Angeles, California v. Patel et al., a case that pitted Fourth Amendment rights against a city’s interest in reducing crime. The controversy arose out of L.A. Municipal Code Section 41.49(3)(a) which requires hotel operators to hand over ninety days of guest records (required to be maintained by Section 41.49) to police at any time or face criminal charges. It should be noted that the constitutionality of requiring hotels to keep guest records was not in question, but solely whether a warrantless search of those records is a violation of the Constitution.

The District Court held there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in hotel records, and then the Ninth Circuit reversed citing a Fourth Amendment violation because hotel owners could be subjected to punishment for failure to comply (a criminal misdemeanor) without being afforded pre-compliance review. The City of L.A. petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari. Firstly, the Supreme Court had to determine whether a facial challenge to the statute was permitted versus an “as applied” challenge. In constitutional law a facial challenge refers to a challenge that argues the statute is always unconstitutional regardless of how it is applied, whereas an “as applied” challenge argues a statute is only unconstitutional when implemented in a particular manner. Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor noted that a facial challenge was permitted and that facial challenges are meant to be understood in the manner the statute could be applied, not exceptions where the statute would not otherwise apply, for example exigent circumstances. The majority held that because there was no pre-compliance review the warrantless search was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, even if an administrative search exception was assumed. The Court also noted that hotels are not one of the “closely regulated industries” which include airports, railroads, restaurants, and liquor establishments for obvious public policy reasons. However, Justice Sotomayor pointed out that even if hotels were closely regulated, the statute still fails to meet three Fourth Amendment requirements for reasonableness:

  1. substantial government interest in regulatory scheme
  2. warrantless exception necessary to further regulatory scheme
  3. constitutionally adequate substitute for warrant provided

Both the City of L.A. and Justice Scalia in his dissent argued that the majority’s holding was a victory for crime and prevented police from being able to reduce crime. Justice Scalia noted that the anonymity of motels “provide an obvious haven for those who trade in human misery” including drugs and prostitution. He pointed to an indictment against certain San Diego motel owners whom allegedly collaborated with Crips gang members to provide special rooms for underage prostitution.

This case is a classic example of the tension and sometimes contravening interests of protecting citizens from unreasonable searches while also reducing crime. We will have to wait and see how law enforcement adjusts to this holding and whether any noticeable increase in criminal activity results. For now, hotel and motel patrons can be assured of a little more privacy from law enforcement but it should be remembered that states and cities requiring hotels to maintain guest records will still be permitted to do so.

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