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U.S. Supreme Court Invalidates Los Angeles Ordinance Requiring Hotel Operators to Allow Police Inspection of Guest Records

June 23, 2015
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday, in City of Los Angeles v. Patel, that a provision of the Los Angeles Municipal Code requiring hotel operators to make certain guest register information available to police on demand violates the Fourth Amendment.
 
The Los Angeles Municipal Code requires hotel operators to maintain certain registration records regarding their guests, including their names and addresses as well as vehicle and payment information. The Code also requires those records to “be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection,” and that failure to do so on request is a misdemeanor.  
 
A group of hotel operators brought suit challenging the inspection requirement, arguing it violates their rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. 
 
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, in a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Sotomayor. The Court found the inspection requirement is unconstitutional on its face because it subjects the hotel operators to punishment for failing to comply with an inspection demand without affording them an opportunity to obtain pre-compliance review by a neutral decision-maker. 
 
The Court rejected the contention that facial challenges are not available, or are disfavored, under the Fourth Amendment. The Court also rejected the notion that the ruling would impede law enforcement efforts to deter criminals from using hotels to engage in illicit activities such as drug dealing, prostitution, and human trafficking. The League’s amicus brief in the case had emphasized that point, in support of the Los Angeles ordinance at issue.
 
Characterizing its holding as “narrow,” the Court explained that an inspection would not violate the U.S. Constitution if performed pursuant to an administrative subpoena, which would afford a hotel operator an opportunity to object to police review of its records. The decision further explained that an inspection would not violate the U.S. Constitution where another exception to the warrant requirement applies — such as where a hotel operator consents to a search or where exigent circumstances make law enforcement’s needs so compelling that the failure to obtain a warrant is justified.
 
In light of the ruling, police departments should consult with their city attorneys to ensure that any local ordinance providing for inspection of hotel guest records withstands constitutional scrutiny and remains enforceable. 
 
The League thanks Tim Coates with Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland LLP for preparing the League’s amicus brief in this case.


 
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