Inside warrantless searches of hotel guest registers

Many municipalities have enacted ordinances that authorize local law agencies to enter a hotel during business hours and request an inspection of its guest register to obtain information on who is in the hotel, when a guest checked in and is expected to check out, how long a guest has stayed in the hotel, a guest’s manner of payment and private information given by a guest to the desk clerk, including home address, car license plate and driver’s license information. The municipalities argue that such ordinances and warrantless searches are necessary to help stop prostitution and drug trafficking or to ensure compliance with the length-of-time requirements for motel guests. Many hotel operators have allowed police agencies to inspect the guest register without objection, as they did not want to be subjected to arrest or citation for not complying with police requests. 

However, some managers have objected and have been convicted of failure to comply with inspection requests. They argue that the police need a warrant to search a hotel register and further, that the ordinances are not specifically limited to time, scope and duration of the inspection allowed or an opportunity to seek judicial review of the ordinance before being subjected to arrest and conviction for refusing to comply with the police agency’s request.

These issues were presented en banc (to all the judges) to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Patel v. City of Los Angeles, Supra and the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the motel owners who had been convicted of refusing to comply with the police request for an inspection. The Court of Appeals found the local ordinance unconstitutional, as a warrantless search did not give the motel owners an opportunity to seek judicial review of the ordinance before they were convicted. Recently, the United States Supreme Court accepted a writ of certiorari (agreed to review) of the Ninth Circuit ruling by the City of Los Angeles.

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It has long been established that legally registered hotel guests enjoy the right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, including their actions, bags and contents in their rooms, from unwarranted searches and seizures by police. Further, historically, the right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment precludes unwarranted searches and seizures of credit card charges and records of the telephone calls made from a hotel room.

In analyzing the searches and seizures from hotel rooms, the court recognized that, while guests are legally registered in a room, the room is a temporary residence and thus, just like their primary residence, they are entitled to the same protections under the Fourth Amendment in their hotel room as they would be in their primary residence. Accordingly, as long as guests are properly registered into the hotel, the innkeeper must request a warrant from any police agency for private guest information. If they do not request and obtain a warrant for the private information, and the innkeeper produces such information to a police agency, they may be subject to a lawsuit for violating the guest's right to privacy.
The Los Angeles City Municipal Ordinance, stated: 

“The record shall be kept on the hotel premises in the guest reception or guest check-in area or in an office adjacent to that area. The record shall be maintained at that location on the hotel premises for a period of 90 days from and after the date of the last entry in the record and shall be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection. Whenever possible, the inspection shall be conducted at a time and in a manner that minimizes any interference with the operation of the business.” 

Although the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on whether the Los Angeles municipal ordinance represents an unwarranted search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, innkeepers must still be careful in not complying with lawful requests for the inspection of guest information. The innkeeper should still request a warrant or subpoena before voluntarily producing guest information or access to a guestroom while the guest is still registered in the room. But, for administrative inspections of the guest registers, pursuant to a local ordinance, the innkeeper needs to seek local counsel interpretation of the local ordinance as to whether it meets the valid constitutional requirements as outlined in Burger and Patel.

James O. Eiler is a partner in the firm of Kaiser, Swindells & Eiler and represents clients throughout California and other states. Stephen Barth is founder of HospitalityLawyer.com and Professor of Hospitality Law and Leadership at the Conrad N. Hilton College at the University of Houston. For more information, analyses and solutions, visit HospitalityLawyer.com and the CONVERGE blog.

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