Montana hotels fight guest registry ordinance

Hotels are often subjected to ordinances by local governments allowing law enforcement to inspect a property's guest registry. Obtaining a registry can provide information as to who is in the hotel, when they checked in, when they plan on checking out, their choice of payment and more private information given to front-desk staff.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court came to a 5-4 ruling to disband a hotel registry search ordinance in Los Angeles, citing unreasonable searches that infringed on a number of motel owners' ability to do business. The searches also brought to light issues with the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution's description of the right to privacy, an argument that is fueling a renewed fight against a similar ordinance in Montana.

Hotels in Montana's Yellowstone County are against the county's ordinance, which according to the Great Falls Tribune requires them to turn over guest registries to any city employee. This includes police officers and parking attendants. The roughly 40 hotels that make up the Yellowstone County Lodging Association are working with Billings, Mont., city attorney Brent Brooks to design a new ordinance to clarify the rules for handing over guest information.

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Currently, if hotels don't turn over their records they could be charged with a crime, something city officials claim was implemented to control zoning regulations. 

The current battle between Yellowstone hotels and the ordinance came about when an officer threatened the management of a local Days Inn with criminal charges if they refused to hand over the guest registry. The officer did not give a reason for requesting the registry. Dan Schwarz, chief deputy Yellowstone County, told the Great Falls Tribune that if a hotel refuses to release the requested information, law enforcement must determine if circumstances call for emergency action, such as "hearing a cry for help from a hotel room, to determine if a crime had been committed or was occurring."

Shelli Mann, secretary of the Yellowstone County Lodging Association and GM of the Boothill Inn and Suites, told the Billings Gazette that the current form of the ordinance leaves room for abuse. Mann said there's "not a hotelier in town who doesn’t want to work with the police, but when (police) say, 'I want to see the names of everyone in your hotel right now,' that is a red flag for us. We want that ordinance rewritten."

Police Chief Rich St. John told the Billings Gazette that his department plans to undergo training for officers and hotel staff on how to more effectively deal with the requirements of the ordinance.

"Our relationship remains excellent, and cooperation and collaboration is high," St. John wrote in an email.