When the Police Ring the Front Desk Bell
By Justin R. Bragiel General Counsel, Texas Hotel & Lodging Association | December 13, 2015
The scene is a common one in hotels across the nation: A police officer is standing at the front desk, asking the clerk whether a particular guest checked in. The officer wants to see a list of guests' names, and even asks for a copy of the security camera footage. The clerk summons the front office manager, and the police officer points out that the city ordinance regulating hotel operations requires hotel compliance with requests to review hotel records. Should the manager turn over the information? What are the hotel's obligations to the guest?
Lodging operators find themselves in a predicament when it comes to balancing guest privacy, business records integrity, and proprietary information against requests from law enforcement and local inspectors. A recent Supreme Court case has given hotels a new tool in our understanding of a hotel's rights against official demands for information. However, we depend on our law enforcement officers to assist us in preventing and investigating criminal activities at the property, and we must simultaneously protect both the business and the guest's privacy.
With three attorneys on staff representing thousands of lodging properties, our office regularly gets calls from hotel managers who are face-to-face with a law enforcement officer requesting information on a guest. The shear breadth of law enforcement requests is staggering. In the last few months alone, hoteliers have called us regarding requests from the local police and sheriffs, the FBI, Border Patrol, military police, the Judge Advocate Generals Corps, state police, a game warden, not to mention local inspectors and auditors. Most of the time, the law enforcement officers want a copy of the hotel's registry and a guest's identifying information, with the hope of finding a wanted individual staying at the hotel. Sometimes these requests go much deeper, such as asking for copies of security camera footage, guest occupancy patterns, guest payment data, or even requesting to enter and search a guest's hotel room. One Department of Defense investigator recently requested parking lot security footage to determine if an employee was using a Department vehicle to sneak off in the middle of the night to drink at a local bar.
The issue of hotel property record requests has been aggravated over the years as many cities have passed local ordinances requiring a hotel operator to turn over guest information or other lodging property records at the request of a law enforcement officer or a city inspector. Usually, these city ordinances come with criminal penalties for non-compliance, essentially demanding that the hotelier turn over records or information at any time of day or night, or face fines or even jail time.
A typical ordinance reads something like this: "It shall be the duty of the owner or operator of any hotel to keep the name of the guest registered the type of official photo identification presented and any other personal identification. Such record or register shall be available at all times for inspection by any officer of the police department of the city. Any person who shall violate any provision of this section shall be guilty of a class C misdemeanor." Many of us practicing hotel law have long protested that these local ordinances violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and a few months ago, the Supreme Court agreed with us.
Why does it matter? Are the records the property of the hotel business? In most situations, data on business customers belongs to the business, and it is the business that is in the position to resist access to this information without a warrant or subpoena, rather than the customer. In the hotel context, this is particularly important because hotel guests have an expectation of privacy when staying at lodging properties. Hotel operators have a duty to take reasonable precautions to both protect that privacy, and also ensure that guest-related data does not fall into the hands of an unauthorized entity. This is true even when the third-party requesting the information is wearing a uniform with a badge.