Tuesday, June 23, 2015
U.S. High Court Strikes Down L.A. Hotel Register Inspection Law
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles city ordinance that allows police officers to inspect hotel registration records without a warrant is unconstitutional on its face, U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The 5-4 decision strikes down a portion of Los Angeles Municipal Code §41.49, which the court said violates the Fourth Amendment insofar as it allows police to review the records without affording an opportunity for prior judicial review.
The ruling upholds the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down the ordinance in a 7-4 en banc decision in December 2013. The court took the case en banc after the district judge and a three-judge appellate panel ruled the plaintiff hotel owners lacked standing.
The law, which the city enacted to deter drug dealing and prostitution, required hotels to obtain—and to preserve in either paper or electronic form for at least 90 days—each guest’s name and address; the number of people in the guest’s party; and the make, model, and license plate number of the guest’s vehicle if the vehicle was to be parked on hotel property. The hotel was also required to record the guest’s date and time of arrival and scheduled date of departure; the room number assigned to the guest; the rate charged and the amount collected for the room; and the method of payment.
Additional information had to be obtained if a guest paid cash, walked in without a reservation, or rented a room for less than 12 hours.
The plaintiffs did not object to the recordkeeping requirements. But they argued that their privacy was being unduly invaded by the requirement that the guest records “be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection,” which the city said gave it the right to inspect the records at any time.
Failure to comply with an inspection demand was punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the high court, said the court’s prior decisions impose a “minimal requirement” that “absent consent, exigent circumstances, or the like, in order for an administrative search to be constitutional, the subject of the search must be afforded an opportunity to obtain precompliance review before a neutral decisionmaker.”
The city, she said, showed no reason why that requirement should not be applied to hotel registers. “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. Even if a hotel has been searched 10 times a day, every day, for three months, without any violation being found, the operator can only refuse to comply with an officer’s demand to turn over the registry at his or her own peril.”
Sotomayor said she expected hotel operators to cooperate in most instances, so that only rarely would a hearing be necessary. She also noted the plaintiffs’ concession that registers could be lawfully searched with an administrative subpoena, so that hearings could be conducted by an administrative law judge, who could quash the subpoena in the rare instance where the low bar required to uphold such subpoenas cannot be met.
“And, in the even rarer event that an officer reasonably suspects that a hotel operator may tamper with the registry while the motion to quash is pending, he or she can guard the registry until the required hearing can occur, which ought not take long,” the justice wrote.
She was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented. He argued that the city’s inspection scheme is consistent with New York v. Burger, 482 U. S. 691 (1987), and other cases allowing warrantless inspections of “closely regulated businesses” as part of a comprehensive regulatory scheme supported by a substantial governmental interest.
The regulation of “motels and their commercial forebears,” he noted, goes back centuries and continues to the present day, as more than 100 localities have ordinances similar to Los Angeles’s.
Sotomayor, in her opinion for the court, responded that the court had only applied special rules for searches of closely regulated businesses in four cases over the past 45 years, all involving threats to the public health and safety.
Scalia called that argument “neither here nor there.” And he castigated Sotomayor’s suggestion that the police preserve hotel registers in emergency cases as “equal parts 1984 and Alice in Wonderland” and said it would be far more disruptive of the privacy of the owners and guests than the inspection scheme contemplated by the ordinance.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Thomas, dissented separately, arguing that the ordinance should not be stricken down on its face because there are a number of circumstances in which the ordinance could be applied constitutionally, such as when the police wish to seize a hotel register to determine whether a kidnapping suspect and his victim are “holed up” on the premises.
The case is City of Los Angeles v. Patel, 13-1175.
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