• Cullen and Dykman LLP Blogs

  • Archives

  • Recent Supreme Court Decision Extends Privacy Rights

    In a sharply-divided decision, the Supreme Court strengthened privacy rights by declaring as unconstitutional a Los Angeles ordinance, the “guest-registry” law, which requires hotels and motels to keep their records open for police inspection on demand, even without a warrant. The law was intended to allow police to look for signs that a hotel was being used as a front for criminal activity.

    In Los Angeles v. Patel, (13-1175), a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the “guest-registry” law violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court found the law unconstitutional because it gave hotel managers no chance to seek a ruling from a judge before complying with a police request.

    Justice Sotomayor, writing for the Court, stated that for an administrative search to be constitutional, the subject “must be afforded an opportunity to obtain precompliance review before a neutral decision maker.” This is the case unless there are exigent circumstances, which is extremely rare. In the case at bar, Los Angeles did not even attempt to afford hotel owners any opportunity to challenge a demand, and therefore, a hotel owner who refused access to his or her registry “c[ould] be arrested on the spot.”

    Additionally, Justice Sotomayor wrote that upholding the law would be dangerous. She went on to explain that “[t]he 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.” She added that “[e]ven if a hotel has been searched 10 times a day, every day, for three months, without any violation being found, the operator can only refuse to comply with an officer’s demand to turn over the registry at his or her own peril.”

    Notably, the Supreme Court clearly stressed that its ruling was to be narrowly construed: Hotels and motels can still be required to store the records, and police may be allowed to inspect them if a judge finds the search has a proper purpose and is not being used as a pretext for harassment.

    About 100 cities and counties across the nation, including San Francisco, Richmond, Emeryville and Alameda County, have similar laws. However, it is important to note that the Court’s decision here does not interfere with any city’s right to require hotel owners to maintain a guest register. The ruling only affects how and when police can access those records.

    This ruling could also impact online data collectors like Google, giving them more power when faced with government demands for consumer records. Additionally, there are millions of companies that hold individuals’ personal information and while consumers typically have no right to object if a company turns that information over to the government, this ruling potentially impacts whether an Internet data collector could require judicial review.

    If you or your institution has any questions or concerns regarding privacy related issues, please email Cynthia A. Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3753.

    A special thank you to Lauren Dwarika, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for her assistance with this blog post.