By Elizabeth Levy

When you check into a hotel, do you assume that the clerk asks for your license plate number to avoid accidentally towing your car? Or that guest services wants to know how many people are in your group to make sure that they’ve stocked the bathroom with enough towels? Guess again. These, and other requirements, are mandated by the City of Los Angeles, in part so that police can access this information.

In a recent decision, City of Los Angeles v. Patel, the Supreme Court invalidated the portion of LAMC §41.19 that required hotel operators to turn over guests’ information to the police upon request–or face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Los Angeles’ Law

Like most hotels, hotels in Los Angeles are required by law to collect and retain certain information about their guests. Among other things, when guests make reservations, Los Angeles Municipal Code (“LAMC”) §41.49 requires hotels to collect:

  • Guests’ names and addresses
  • The number of people in a party
  • The make, model and license plate of vehicles parked on hotel property
  • The date and time of guests’ arrival and departure
  • The room number
  • The rate charged and amount collected for the room
  • Guests without reservations, who pay in cash, or who reserve a room for less than 12 hours are subject to additional record keeping requirements, and are required to show a photo ID.

Hotel Owners’ Challenge To The Law

Hotel owners concerned about their guests’ privacy took the case up to the Supreme Court to challenge the law’s requirement that hotel operations turn over guests’ information to the police without a warrant – or face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The Supreme Court considered two questions: (1) whether facial challenges to laws are permitted under the Fourth Amendment; and, (2) if so, whether the portion of the Los Angeles law requiring hotels to give police records upon request is facially valid.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In striking part of the law, the Supreme Court held that hotel operators who object to handing records over to the police must at least have the opportunity for the records request to be reviewed by a neutral decision maker before facing penalties.

With respect to the first issue, the Court conceded that it is difficult to overturn a law under the Fourth Amendment based on a facial challenge, but held that facial challenges are constitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

With respect to the second issue of whether the requirement was facially valid, the City of Los Angeles argued that the law was constitutional because searches should be permitted in emergencies. However, the Supreme Court rejected this argument and noted that this line of logic would allow exceptions to create a rule. The Supreme Court explained that when considering the constitutionality of a warrantless search, the proper focus is on searches that the law authorizes, as opposed to situations (such as emergencies) where the search would be permitted without the statute.

The City of Los Angeles also argued that the hotel industry should join the exclusive club of closely regulated hazardous industries (i.e. liquor sales, firearms dealing, mining and operating an automobile junkyard), and that this closely regulated status should preserve the constitutionality of the statute. The Court also rejected this argument and stressed that hotels do not pose the same kinds of potential risks to the public as say, firearms or coal mines.

Finally, the City of Los Angeles argued that because hotels are subject to certain industry-specific requirements, such as changing linens in between guests, it should be closely regulated. The unconvinced majority explained that such a basic, industry specific regulation is analogous to wage and hour laws, and is not sufficient to thrust hotels into the arena of highly-regulated industries subject to increased inspection.

What This Means For Hotel Owners?

Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision provides hotels with an avenue to better protect guests’ private information. However, the Court took great pains to note that even though hotels may choose to have a police officer’s request to inspect records reviewed by a neutral party, this review process does not necessarily create a significant hurdle in obtaining guests’ records. Nevertheless, by finding the law unconstitutional on its face, the Court’s decision shows that warrantless searches are subject to oversight.

If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact the author, or your Seyfarth attorney.