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Privacy Rights on LA Hotel Registers

The US Supreme Court is poised to release its decision on yet another Fourth Amendment privacy case. This one is about a Los Angeles ordinance which requires hotels to surrender guest registries to the police upon request, without a warrant. On Monday, October 20, the justices agreed to hear Los Angeles’ appeal of a lower court that ruled 7-4 that the law – which is meant to combat prostitution, gambling and terrorism – is unconstitutional.

The law requires that hotels provide information including guests’ credit card numbers, home address, drivers’ licence information and vehicle license number, at the drop of a hat. It should be noted that several dozen cities, including Atlanta and Seattle, have similar ordinances.

What happened?

Like many other cities and towns, Los Angeles requires innkeepers to maintain a guest register and make it available for police inspection at any time. Vice squads regularly use such records to keep tabs on morals offenses, such as gambling and prostitution.

This could be considered a historical ordinance, a throwback to privacy disputes of earlier generations, before the authorities had access to digital data stored on someone’s cell phone or other mobile device. The high court has become more and more attuned to privacy issues in the digital age.

Los Angeles city officials say that the power to review the registers whenever they want could help to locate fugitives or track leads after a terrorist attack, a line of reasoning that was similar to what was offered by police in the cell phone cases. However, this law was challenged by the Los Angeles Lodging Association, amongst others.

In December 2013, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled police must obtain a warrant before reviewing hotel registers. The appeals court said the ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

An expanded panel of the San Francisco-based appeals court held by a 7-4 vote that the city could require hotels and motels to maintain the registers, but the information within them remained the private property of the innkeeper. As with other private papers, the Constitution requires police to obtain a warrant before conducting a search, said the appeals court.

In seeking Supreme Court review, Los Angeles City Attorney Michale Feuer said lower court judges were sharply divided over the issue, as reflected by different outcomes during litigation on the Los Angeles law.

The city also argued that lower courts were split over whether laws could be challenged for violating the Fourth Amendment without an incident triggering the case. The LA Lodging Association sued to invalidate the ordinance without first violating it, risking a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Los Angeles said the case could end up determining the fate of at least 70 similar hotel-inspection laws in 26 other states.

Different Perspectives

In representing the majority, Judge Paul Watford wrote:

“Businesses do not ordinarily disclose, and are not expected to disclose, the kind of commercially sensitive information contained in the records,” continuing that a hotel has “the right to exclude others from prying into the contents of its records.”

In support of the law, Los Angeles city officials commented:

“These laws 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 homeland terrorist attack.”

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) weighed in on the situation:

“The Supreme Court will consider both the scope of privacy protections for hotel guests and also whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits laws that allow unlawful searches. The second issue has far-reaching consequences because many recent laws authorize the police searches without judicial review. Thus far, courts have only considered “as applied” challenges on a case-by-case basis.”

One of many cases…

It’s important to note that this appeal is the third high-profile Fourth Amendment case that the justices have reviewed in the last three years.

Back in 2012, the justices ruled that authorities generally need search warrants when they affix GPS devices to a vehicle. Earlier in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the authorities need warrants to take a look at the mobile phones of suspects they arrest.

Summary

On October 20, the US Supreme Court agreed to review a Los Angeles city ordinance which authorizes police to examine hotel registers without a warrant.

CIPP Exam Preparation                                      

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/United States (CIPP/US) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Branches of government (I.A.a.)
  • Jurisdiction (I.A.c.i.)
  • Federal enforcement actions (I.B.e.)
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