A divided U.S. Supreme Court threw out a Los Angeles ordinance that lets police demand access to hotel registries, in a ruling that raises questions about hundreds of similar laws around the country.
Voting 5-4, the justices sided with hotel owners who said the law violates their constitutional right against unreasonable searches. The majority faulted the law for not giving hotel owners the chance to object to a judge before having to comply.
“A hotel owner who refuses to give an officer access to his or her registry can be arrested on the spot,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. “The court has held that business owners cannot reasonably be put to this kind of choice.”
Los Angeles officials said the measure deters drug trafficking and prostitution by prodding hotels and motels to comply with requirements that they register all guests.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
“The warrantless inspection requirement provides a necessary incentive for motels to maintain their registers thoroughly and accurately,” Scalia wrote. “They never know when law enforcement might drop by to inspect.”
Los Angeles requires hotels and motels to record information about their guests, including name, address and license-plate number. A version of the ordinance has been in effect for 100 years.
The high court clash concerned only the ability of police to demand access to that information, not the recordkeeping requirement itself.
Sotomayor said police at least should be required to present a subpoena that the hotel owner could then challenge before a judge or some other neutral authority. She predicted that hotel owners would avail themselves of that opportunity only in “rare instances.”
“Absent an opportunity for precompliance review, the ordinance creates an intolerable risk that searches authorized by it will exceed statutory limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests,” Sotomayor wrote.
Laws allowing police inspections of hotel registries are in place in Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Cincinnati. California alone has 70 such measures, including laws in San Diego and San Francisco, according to a court filing by the National League of Cities.
The case is Los Angeles v. Patel, 13-1175.