An Update on the Ability of the Police to Search Hotel Records

By John R. Hunt Attorney, Stokes Wagner Hunt Martez & Terrell, ALC | December 18, 2016

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that placed restrictions on the ability of law enforcement officers to inspect hotel guest registers and other records. Many local laws, which had authorized unlimited police inspections, suddenly were rendered unconstitutional. This article reviews that decision and discusses the developments that have occurred in this area during the past year.

Until recently, hotels in many jurisdictions routinely provided the police with access to their guest registers without much concern about the privacy issues that might be involved. After all, numerous cities and towns possessed ordinances that required hotels to collect specific guest information and allowed the police inspect the information upon request. A failure to allow access could result in a fine or in some cases, jail time.

In 2015, however, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case of City of Los Angeles v. Patel, 135 S.Ct. 2443 (2015), which recognized that a hotel has a privacy interest in the information it collects from its guests. Moreover, the court held that a hotel which objects to providing the police with access to this information must be able to obtain an impartial review of whether the request by the police is proper.

Now that Patel has been the law for over a year, it is worth examining what kinds of changes it has brought about from a legal and operational standpoint. In order to do so, a brief recap of the case is appropriate.

The dispute in Patel involved a Los Angeles city ordinance that had been on the books for over one hundred years in one form or another. The ordinance required hotel operators to record a variety of information about their guests, including: the guest's name and address; the number of persons in their party; the make, model and license plate number of the guest's vehicle; their arrival and departure dates and times; the room number that was assigned to the guest; the rate charged; the amount collected; and the method of payment. If a guest paid with cash or rented a room for less than twelve hours, he or she had to present the hotel with photographic identification and the operator was required to record the number and expiration date of the document. The city required hotels to keep this information for at least ninety days and train their employees on how to record it.

The Ordinance also mandated that the records containing this information were to be made available to any Los Angeles police officer for inspection. The only restriction was that an inspection was to be conducted at a time that "minimized any interference with the operation of the business." A failure by a hotel to provide the records for inspection was a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

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