(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Los Angeles ordinance requiring hotels to maintain a guest register subject to police inspection without a warrant.
The 5-4 decision upheld a ruling by the Ninth Circuit.
In an opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court held that denying hotel owners the opportunity to challenge police requests to view the register “creates an intolerable risk that searches authorized [by the ordinance] will exceed statutory limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests.
“Even if a hotel has been search 10 times a day, every day, for three months, without any violation being found, the operator an only refuse to complaint with an officer’s demand to turn over the registry at his or her own peril,” she said.
Joining Sotomayor in this position were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
The case arises from a lawsuit filed by hoteliers Naranjibhai and Ramilaben Patel who challenged the city ordinance under the Fourth Amendment as an unlawful invasion of their private business records.
Section 41.49 of Los Angeles Municipal Code says hoteliers must record and keep for 90 days information about each guest, including their names and addresses, details about their vehicles, arrival and departure dates, room numbers, the rate charged and payment method. Moreover, if a police officer requests the information, hotel owners must submit to a warrantless, onsite inspection of their guest registries or face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The ordinance is meant to deter drug-dealing and prostitution in the city.
U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer sided with the city of Los Angeles after a bench trial, and a split three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Pasadena affirmed in July 2012. Both courts concluded that the Patels had failed to show a privacy interest in the registry information.
The Ninth Circuit later agreed to reconsider the issue before an 11-judge, en banc panel. A seven-justice majority reversed in late December 2013, based on their finding that the inspection portion of the law clearly violates the Fourth Amendment.
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that far from unleashing police to take wide liberties with hotel registrant information, the Los Angeles ordinance “limits these spot checks to the four corners of the register, and does not authorize police to enter any nonpublic area of the motel.
“To the extent possible,” he added, “police must conduct these spot checks at times that will minimize any disruption to a motel’s business.”
Scalia went on to say that motels are “a particularly attractive site for criminal activity ranging from drug dealing and prostitution to human trafficking.
“Offering privacy and anonymity on the cheap, they have been employed as prisons for migrants smuggled across the border and held for ransom … and rendezvous sites where child sex workers meet their clients on threat of violence from their procurers,” he wrote.
“Nevertheless, the Court today concludes that Los Angeles’s ordinance is ‘unreasonable’ inasmuch as it permits police to flip through a guest register to ensure it is being filled out without first providing an opportunity for the motel operator to seek judicial review,” Scalia continued. “Because I believe that such a limited inspection of a guest register is eminently reasonable under the circumstances presented, I dissent.”
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia’s dissent.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate dissent, which Justice Thomas also joined.
Alito said he couldn’t join the majority because he had doubts about its approach to administrative searches and closely regulated industries. “But even if the Court were 100% correct, it should still uphold [the Los Angeles ordinance] because many other applications of this law are constitutional.”
In the end, he said, he found the position of his colleagues in the majority “befuddling.”
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