Supreme Court Strikes Down Law That Required Hotels To Comply With Warrantless Police Requests For Guest Registries

On June 22, 2015, in a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Los Angeles v. Patel struck down a Los Angeles Municipal Code that required hotel operators to provide guest registries to police upon demand, and without a warrant. Under the ordinance, a hotel operator who refused to turn over registries could be immediately arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

The Court's opinion turned on the fact that the ordinance did not afford hotel operators a "precompliance review" by a judge or a magistrate before deciding whether to disclose the registry. Such a review would have allowed a neutral decision-maker to review the officer's demand before the hotel operator faced penalties for failing to comply. The Court recognized the privacy considerations associated with guest records, and held:

"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."

Also significant in this ruling, the Court rejected the City's argument that hotel operation constitutes a closely regulated industry, and therefore more stringent laws should apply to hotels. Rather, the Court ruled "nothing inherent in the operation of hotels poses a clear and significant risk to the public welfare."

Although no jurisdiction in this author's home state of Arizona has adopted a law similar to the one in Los Angeles, many cities and counties across the country have. It remains to be seen whether legislators and city officials in those jurisdictions, in light of Patel, will amend their laws to afford hotel operators the opportunity to seek "precompliance review" before turning over guest registries to police. What we do know, however, is that the Supreme Court just granted the hotel industry a victory by protecting privacy interests associated with the hotel-guest relationship.