The Supreme Court Rules against Warrantless Searches of Hotel Records

Another Victory for the  Fourth Amendment 

(Opinion issued June 22, 2015) In City of Los Angeles vs. Patel, the Supreme Court heard a Fourth Amendment challenge to a municipal ordinance that authorizes “administrative” law-enforcement searches of hotel and motel guest registers. “Administrative search” is a label generally used to describe governmental inspections of commercial premises for health and safety reasons — that is, not based on probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, and not looking primarily for evidence of crime. (In recent years the Court has used the label of “special needs” searches to capture an even broader category of searches that includes “administrative”).

Here, the Los Angeles ordinance in question provides that records of information about guests that hotel are required by law to keep – guest registers — “shall be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection … at a time and manner that minimizes any interference with the operation of the business.” The ordinance appears to have been enacted to provide a disincentive for the short-term use of hotels and motels for crime. It was stipulated below (that is, agreed to by all parties) that the ordinance authorizes the police to inspect such guest registers without the hotel owner’s consent and, most significantly, without a warrant. A group of motel owner-operators sued, and once various stipulations were reached, all parties agreed that “the sole issue … is a facial constitutional challenge” to the ordinance under the Fourth Amendment. They sought a declaratory judgment against the ordinance and an injunction prohibiting its enforcement.

In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Sotomayor, the held that the provision of the Los Angeles Municipal Code that requires hotel operators to make their registries available to the police on demand is facially unconstitutional because it penalizes them for declining to turn over their records without affording them any opportunity for precompliance review.

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