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Supreme Court hears Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless police searches of hotel guest lists

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the City of Los Angeles’ appeal of a Ninth Circuit decision holding that a city ordinance requiring hotels to maintain detailed records of each guest’s identity and personal information unconstitutional. In a split decision, the Ninth Circuit found the ordinance to violate the Fourth Amendment on its face, and prevented LA police from accessing the register without a search warrant or the hotel’s consent.

Hotel Registries and the Right to Privacy
In most jurisdictions, each hotel guest is required to provide certain personal identification information. Not only does this information serve basic record keeping functions necessary to hotel management and guest services, but it may also be used by law enforcement under a legislative enactment. For example, a current Massachusetts statute requires hotel administrators to maintain a registry of names of hotel guests, and to produce this information to law enforcement upon request. And unlike various other forms of searches and seizures, the state Supreme Judicial Court has upheld this statute as constitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

This is primarily the issue in the City of LA’s appeal with the Supreme Court. Like Massachusetts, the City of LA enacted an ordinance requiring hotel owners and managers to maintain a registry of guests, and to make this registry available to police upon request. Analogizing to the facts of the Massachusetts case of Com. v. Blinn, 399 Mass. 126 (1986) (where the SJC unanimously held that no search warrant was needed since hotel operators do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the registry), the City of LA argues that the Ninth Circuit was incorrect in deciding that consent or a search warrant is needed for LAPD to access the registry.

However, a distinguishing factor between the Massachusetts statute and the LA ordinance is the amount of information called for by the ordinance – not only the name of the guest (which is all that is required under the Massachusetts statute), but information about their stay, identification numbers, vehicle registration information, and credit card/financial information as well. The LA ordinance is therefore much more expansive, providing LA police with access to substantially more information on a hotel’s guests.

Hotel Registries as Private Property

Unlike the Massachusetts decision, the Ninth Circuit also had two distinct bases for its ruling against the City – the hotel had both a privacy interest in its records, as well as a property-based right to exclude others from property. Under the second basis, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Fourth Amendment expressly protects “papers” (such as the hotel’s business records and registries) as the hotel’s private property. As such, the hotel has a right to exclude others from prying into the contents of its record property. Therefore, the ordinance raises constitutional problems on both right-to-privacy grounds as well as on the basis of a property owner’s right to exclude. The latter basis was never addressed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Potential Changes in Law Although this issue is not as ripe as others which the U.S. Supreme Court has preferred to hear in the past, the case has been accepted and so will likely lead to a landmark decision effecting many jurisdictions across the nation with similar legislation. If the Supreme Court affirms the Ninth Circuit decision, states such as Massachusetts may need to revisit their legislation to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court’s decisions, since the U.S. Supreme Court has supreme authority in addressing of federal constitutional rights. This would likely translate to more federal constitutional protection for defendants.

Regardless of the outcome, this decision is an important reminder for the need of an experienced Massachusetts appellate attorney to identify and argue the relevant issues of a case. In the present case, the hotel’s attorneys mounted a powerful defense in opposition to the City’s appeal, which may ultimately benefit criminal defendants both in LA as well in Massachusetts, among others.

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