On The Front Lines
Citing Right to Privacy, Travel & Association, Rutherford Institute Asks Supreme Court to Prohibit Police from Gaining Unfettered Access to Hotel Records
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Citing a fundamental right to privacy, travel and association, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to prohibit police from gaining unfettered access to motel and hotel guest registries. In an amicus curiae brief filed in City of Los Angeles v. Patel, et al., Rutherford Institute attorneys are asking the Court to declare unconstitutional a Los Angeles ordinance that allows police to inspect private hotel and motel records containing information about the persons who are staying there without a warrant or other judicial review. The Institute’s brief argues that the ordinance, which is similar to laws on the books in cities across the nation, flies in the face of historical protections affording hotel guests privacy in regards to their identities and comings-and-goings and burdens the fundamental rights of travel and association, which the Court has long safeguarded from arbitrary government scrutiny.
“This practice of giving police officers unfettered, warrantless access to Americans’ hotel records is no different from the government’s use of National Security Letters to force banks, phone companies, casinos and other businesses to secretly provide the FBI with customer information such as telephone records, subscriber information, credit reports, employment information, and email records and not disclose the demands,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “Both ploys are merely different facets of the government’s campaign to circumvent, by hook or by crook, the clear procedural safeguards of the Fourth Amendment and force business owners to act as extensions of the police state.”
Section 41.49 of the City of Los Angeles Municipal Code requires all hotel owners to maintain a registry that collects information about persons staying at the hotel, including their names, addresses, vehicle information, arrival and departure dates, room prices, and payment methods. Under this law, it is a crime for a guest to provide false or misleading information in registering at the hotel. The law also requires that hotels make these records available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection on demand, thereby allowing law enforcement officers to inspect this information at any time regardless of whether there is consent to the inspection or a warrant allowing it. Additionally, police need not have any measure of suspicion in order to review hotel registries under the ordinance and there need not be any history of criminal activity at the hotel. A hotel operator is guilty of a crime if he or she refuses to allow inspection.
In 2005, the Los Angeles Lodging Association and various owners and operators of hotels and motels in the city filed a lawsuit challenging the requirement of the ordinance that they grant unfettered access to their guest registries, arguing that the ordinance is a patent violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection of persons’ houses, papers and effects against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” In December 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the hotel owners’ claims, ruling that the inspection of hotel registries by police is clearly a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit also rejected the claim that hotels are a “closely regulated” industry that should expect government inspections, thereby holding that police are not excused from the general search warrant requirement. In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that police should not be given carte blanche to rummage through records containing highly personal information because this could chill the exercise of other constitutional rights, such as the right to travel and the right of association.
Affiliate attorneys Anand Agneshwar and Grace K. Chang of Arnold & Porter, LLP, assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.