SCOTUS Update: Los Angeles v. Patel


Supreme Court strikes down Los Angeles law allowing police to examine hotel registries without a warrant

Last year I blogged about Los Angeles vs. Patel. In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down their decision.


The hoteliers took victory in the privacy-rights arena when the U.S. Supreme Court essentially struck down a City of Los Angeles law that had resulted in warrantless spot checks of their business records. Officially, the city ordinance required hotel operators to keep specified information about their customers for 90 days and to make the details available to police whenever they asked for it.

The case Patel v. City of Los Angeles originated in 2003 when a group of hotel operators sued the city in federal district court, alleging a violation of the Fourth Amendment and its protection against unreasonable searches. The city required hotels to keep information on a customer’s name and address, dates of stay, room number and mode of payment.

Hotels faced criminal penalties if they failed to turn requested information over to law enforcement within the three-month period. The Los Angeles city attorney’s office claimed that some hotels in the area had become centers for drug dealing, prostitution and other crimes. The hoteliers alleged that late-night, impromptu checks of their guest records were intrusive and bothersome for family members running the business as well as guests.

The 5-4 ruling doesn’t necessarily prohibit police from seeking and obtaining information from hoteliers. What it does do is require police to obtain a judicial search warrant in advance, which effectively keeps police from conducting the so-called spot checks.

A story in the Los Angeles Times quoted Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s majority opinion, in which she said that the Los Angeles ordinance was unconstitutional because it penalized hoteliers for declining to turn over records “without affording them any opportunity for pre-compliance review.”

Requiring a judge to approve the search in advance “alters the dynamic between officer and the hotel to be searched and reduces the risk that officers will use these administrative searches as a pretext to harass business owners.” Under the ordinance, she added, a hotel could be searched “10 times a day, every day, for three months, without any violation being found.”
The minority argued that a warrantless search, as applied in the Patel case, satisfied the conditions of a regulatory scheme for a closely regulated business, the L.A. Times story said.

In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the costs of always having to obtain a search warrant “would be prohibitive for police force in one of America’s largest cities, juggling numerous law-enforcement priorities and confronting more than 2,000 motels within its jurisdiction.”



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