Police Officers Can’t Search Hotel Records on Demand, but What Does That Mean?

On June 22, 2015, in Los Angeles v. Patel, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that cops can’t rummage through hotel records whenever they want. (576 U.S. ___ (2015).) The opinion, framed in terms of the hotel’s privacy interest rather than that of its guests, nixed part of a Los Angeles Municipal Code section.

The code section in question mandated that hotel and motel operators (1) maintain certain records about their guests and (2) allow police officers to inspect those records on demand. The second part is unconstitutional, Justice Sotomayor wrote, because it forces hotels to disclose records at law enforcement’s whim without any opportunity to object.

The Law

Los Angeles Municipal Code section 41.49 requires hotel operators to document a variety of information about their guests, like:

  • names and addresses
  • the number of people in each guest’s party
  • detailed vehicle descriptions for cars parked on premises
  • arrival and scheduled departure dates, and
  • room numbers.

Hotels have to store this kind of data for 90 days.

The Supreme Court was okay with these requirements. The problem, according to Sotomayor and the four Justices who signed onto her opinion, was a provision that forced hotels to open records to police officers without justification. Failure to comply was a misdemeanor carrying up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Independent Review

Courts have created fundamental exceptions to the Fourth Amendment requirement that police officers get warrants before conducting searches. Nevertheless, in general, a search conducted without a judge’s prior approval qualifies as unreasonable. The Patel Court stressed that this principle applies both to homes and most businesses.

One of the exceptions to what courts call “the warrant requirement” has to do with administrative searches. In broad terms, these are searches that serve some purpose other than typical crime control. Think of, on the one hand, a restaurant inspection to ensure health code compliance and, on the other, a drug house raid to gather evidence for criminal prosecution.

The Patel Court allowed for the fact that searches of hotel records serve a purpose other than criminal investigation—that they ensure that lodging providers keep records the way they’re supposed to. (People who are up to no good, the theory goes, are more likely to frequent hotels that don’t keep guest records.)

But even if hotel record inspections qualify as administrative searches, Sotomayor said, a hotel operator is owed an opportunity to have a “neutral decisionmaker” evaluate a search demand before the search takes place—or the operator is arrested for refusing.

Not Such a Big Deal

Sotomayor explained that inquisitive police officers could simply issue what’s called an administrative subpoena: a simple form demanding record inspection. In most instances, she surmised, the hotel operator would cooperate. But a hotel that objected to the search would be able to challenge the subpoena (move to “quash” it). Then that “neutral decisionmaker”—for instance, an administrative law judge—would decide whether the search should go through.

And fear not tampering, Sotomayor assured: An officer who reasonably suspects that a hotel will alter the sought-after records while a judge evaluates the propriety of the proposed search can guard them until the ruling comes down.

Not only that, but officers remain free to seek warrants authorizing records searches before approaching hotel owners. And they can of course search records without prior approval when there’s some kind of emergency—for example, where they have reason to believe a hotel guest has taken a hostage.

Sotomayor and company’s point was essentially this: Providing hotels with an opportunity for independent review before they have to hand over their records won’t thwart criminal investigation and will prevent overly broad, harassing intrusions. Sotomayor remarked that the now defunct code provision would have allowed a hotel to be “searched 10 times a day, every day, for three months, without any violation being found . . . .”

But Kind of a Big Deal

At first blush, the Patel decision might appear to affect only the hospitality industry. And all it does is provide hotels the option of challenging record-inspection demands; one has to wonder how often they’ll actually exercise it.

But as Professor Rory Little observes, the ruling is broad enough to require “an  ‘opportunity for precompliance review’ for virtually all governmental inspection programs.”

“This means that business owners who are confronted with an administrative subpoena to inspect their premises must have some opportunity to ‘question the reasonableness of the subpoena before suffering any penalties for refusing to comply.’”

So Patel doesn’t necessarily expand the privacy interests of hotel patrons. But it does bolster protections for businesses subject to government inspection.