The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to decide whether a city ordinance authorizing police to search hotel and motel guest registries violates the Fourth Amendment. The case is City of Los Angeles v. Patel.
The Los Angeles municipal code requires hotels to maintain guest registries and to make them available to police inspection at any time without consent or a search warrant. Failure to comply with an officer’s inspection demand is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Naranjibhai Patel and Ramilaben Patel are owners and operators of motels in Los Angeles. They challenged the city ordinance, arguing it was facially unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment because it authorizes unreasonable invasions of their private business records without a warrant or pursuant to any recognized warrant exception.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, ruling 7-4, held that hotel operators have an expectation of privacy in their hotel registries.
Read more here.
But, before you become convinced that this case will decide what privacy rights you have when you stay at the Motel Six, be aware that Los Angles raised a question of whether a “facial challenge” is ever allowed against a law that allegedly violates the Fourth Amendment. In a facial challenge, the test is whether a law can be used in any case, no matter what the facts are.
There are at least seventy laws at the state and local level across the country that permit police to inspect hotel guest records without prior court approval. “These laws,” the Los Angles petition said, “expressly help police investigate crimes such as prostitution and gambling, capture dangerous fugitives and even authorize federal law enforcement to examine these registers — an authorization which can be vital in the immediate aftermath of a domestic terrorist attack.”