Analysis: Supreme Court guest registry ruling
30 JUNE 2015 7:43 AM
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down an L.A. ordinance allowing police to inspect hotel guest registries at any time. Here’s what the ruling means for you.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last week over the right of law enforcement officials to inspect hotel guest registries has immediate implications on hoteliers throughout the country.
In Los Angeles v. Patel, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote struck down an L.A. ordinance requiring hoteliers to maintain a guest registry subject to police inspection at any time. Failure to comply resulted in a criminal misdemeanor.
The ordinance was designed to deter criminal activity at some properties that the city attorney’s office argued had become havens for prostitution, sex trafficking and drug dealing.
A group of hotel owners challenged the ordinance, arguing it provided some police officers a license to harass hoteliers and their guests without subpoena or search warrant. The law therefore was in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches, the hoteliers argued.
The Supreme Court agreed.
In a majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that “absent an opportunity for precompliance review, the ordinance creates an intolerable risk that searches authorized by it will exceed statutory limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests.”
What the ruling means for hoteliers in LA
The ruling rendered the L.A. ordinance unconstitutional effective immediately.
“At this point, with the ordinance being deemed unconstitutional, there doesn’t appear to be any obligation on the part of the hotel owners … to voluntarily submit to a law enforcement agent demand for inspection,” explained David C. Lee, a partner with Michelman & Robinson.
Put more succinctly: If a police officer demands to see a guest registry in L.A., the hoteliers can now say, “Nah, I don’t think so. That’s a private business record,’” he added.
However, Lee was quick to point out that L.A. likely will add an amendment to the ordinance to fit within the confines of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer affirmed Lee’s suspicion.
“We believe we can craft an ordinance, consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision, which enables the city to renew our efforts to combat human trafficking and other crimes associated with these motels,” he said in a written statement.
Furthermore, provisions requiring hoteliers to record guests’ names, addresses, vehicle information, method of payment, among other records, remain on the books.
The amended ordinance likely will put the burden on hotel owners and operators as to whether they want to challenge a demand to inspect the guest registry, Lee said.
In other words, if an officer asks to see the registry, an owner likely will have one of two options:
- Comply with the officer’s request and turn over the records; or
- Deny the request, thus enacting his right for precompliance review to assess the viability of the officer’s request.
Not all owners will choose option No. 2, Lee said.
“Anytime the hotel owner is faced with a choice of having to incur expense to pursue a legal ruling, or at least to get access to a court to assess the viability of this particularly requirement in a certain situation, all of a sudden that hotel owner is deciding, ‘Is this really worth it for me to spend the money to fight it?’” he said.
What the ruling means for hoteliers elsewhere
More than 100 such guest registry ordinances have been enacted by local municipalities outside L.A., according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
While the Supreme Court’s ruling focuses solely on the L.A. ordinance, there now exists legal precedent to combat ordinances elsewhere.
“The Court’s decision was clear: Hoteliers have a right to privacy in their business records, including guest registries,” said Chirag Shah, VP for government affairs and counsel of the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association. At least six AAHOA members were among the parties to challenge the ordinance in Los Angeles v. Patel.
“Consequently, the ruling will likely compel many of these jurisdictions to amend their laws or they may face legal action from hoteliers,” he said. “We recommend hoteliers with properties in these cities to reach out to their local law enforcement and legislative leaders and collaboratively seek remedies that can balance hoteliers’ right to privacy, with the need to ensure public safety and ultimately benefit the community.”
Lee advised checking local ordinances before changing behavior on property.
“An ordinance in some other county or state or city could be perfectly compliant with the prototypical ordinance envisioned by the Patel case, which would obligate that hotel owner to provide the information,” he said.
Working with law enforcement
Lee said the case and its subsequent ruling provides a fascinating analysis of the intersection between privacy concerns and law enforcement interest.
“Those are both pretty highly regarded principles,” he said.
Shah underscored the point, emphasizing that most law enforcement officials act within the just and reasonable context of the law.
What’s more, they’re important players within the world of hospitality.
“Hoteliers, like all residents in a community, depend on law enforcement officials to keep them safe and to protect their property,” Shah said. “In cities and towns across America, hotel owners have developed strong relationships with local law enforcement because cooperation between community leaders is the first step towards crime prevention.
“AAHOA regularly encourages our members to get to know their local law enforcement members and to develop a strong working relationship with them to ensure they can depend on each other in crisis situations.”