Warrantless Search of Hotel Records Unconstitutional

A Los Angeles law that allowed warrantless inspection of hotel guest registration forms, including names and credit card information, was struck down Tuesday as an unconstitutional search in violation of  the hotels’ fourth amendment rights.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 7-4 ruling, held the requirement that hotel guest records be made available for any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection was invalid because they allowed a search without prior judicial review.

Although hotels are required by law to keep detailed information about guests, pricing practices and occupancy, “the hotel’s property and privacy interests are more than sufficient to trigger Fourth Amendment protection,” wrote Judge Paul Watford for the majority.

Hotel owners, led by Naranjibhai Patel, challenged the city law.  Hotel and motel operators are required to collect the guest’s name, address, license plate number, make and model of the car, date and time of arrival, room number, charges and method of payment.  Failure to allow police to view the records could be punished by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

In dissent, Judge Richard Tallman said the city ordinance should not have been overturned until there is an actual violation.  The hotel owners “ask us to assume the exercise of analyzing all potential searches that might be conducted pursuant to the ordinance in order to declare it deficient,” Tallman said.  “We should decline,” he said.

He was joined by Judges Diarmuid O’Scannlain, Richard Clifton and Connie Callahan.

The question for the court was  whether the searches authorized by Los Angeles were “reasonable.”

Watford and the majority said it was and had little trouble finding any request for hotel records constituted a search.

In dissent, Judge Richard Clifton said the majority is wrong in two ways.  “First, it ignores the facial nature of plaintiffs’ challenge to the ordinance and the very high bar that must be overcome for a facial challenge to succeed.  Second, it fails to establish that a search of records under ordinance would be unreasonable, the ultimate standard imposed under the Fourth Amendment,” he said.

Watford, one of the most recent appointees to the court, was joined in the majority by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, Judges Raymond Fisher, Marsha Berzon, Milan Smith, Mary Murguia and Morgan Christen.

Case: Patel v. city of Los Angeles, No. 08-56567


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