The Fourth Amendment protects “people, not places”, but in applying it the courts seem to care quite a bit about places, too. As Jason Miller’s explains in his useful note in the Seton Hall Circuit Review, while the Fourth Amendment principles behind hotel room searches are the same as behind any search (reasonable expectation of privacy awards standing for overnight guests), but hotels pose special fact-sensitive challenges, including registration under an alias, registration for a third party, paying with a fradulent credit card, exceeding checkout time, and the classic from Minnesota v. Carter–booking a room solely for the purpose of bagging cocaine.
But this week’s decision in Los Angeles v. Patel required the Supreme Court to examine hotel searches via a different prism. This was not a motion to dismiss evidence or a §1983 lawsuit, but rather a facial challenge brought by motel owners against a Los Angeles city ordinance that requires them to maintain a careful registration of hotel guests’ names, makes of cars, photo ID for cash payers, and sometimes credit card information. The information needs to be kept for 90 days and–which is the provision at issue in Patel–made “available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection,” provided that “[w]henever possible, the inspection shall be conducted at a time and in a manner that minimizes any interference with the operation of the business.” Failure to comply, a misdemeanor, is punishable by up to six months in jail and a$1,000 fine.
The reasoning for the ordinance are fairly obvious: in his dissent, Justice Scalia explains that “The purpose of this recordkeeping requirement is to deter criminal conduct, on the theory that criminals will be unwilling to carry on illicit activities in motel rooms if they must provide identifying information at check-in. Because this deterrent effect will only be accomplished if motels actually do require guests to provide the required information, the ordinance also authorizes police to conduct random spot checks of motels’ guest registers to ensure that they are properly maintained.” But it is also understandable that Los Angeles motel owners are well aware of other reasons why their clientele might not wish to be exposed in the registry, and see the ordinance as an interference with their business model (apparently, there’s a whole line of hotels called “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”!).
Can they successfully challenge the Fourth Amendment, even though in any individual guest’s case the police might be able to search a room with a warrant or a recognized exception? By a 5:4 majority, the Supreme Court answers this question in the affirmative.
Justice Sotomayor, who wrote the Opinion of the Court, found that the Fourth Amendment is as useful for a facial attack as any other constitutional provision. In doing so, she distinguished Sibron v. New York (1968), in which a facial attack failed, by arguing that the statute in Sibron was new and difficult to interpret (and therefore unlikely to be struck down.) Sotomayor provided several examples of prior facial attacks based on the Fourth Amendment, such as student athlete and employee drug testing schemes, and the successful challenges to drug testing schemes for candidates for office, warrantless arrests in the home, and luggage searches for people arriving in Puerto Rico from the United States.
In response to the government’s contention that the ordinance in Patel differs from those examples in that hotel searches under it will not be universally unconstitutional, Sotomayor points out that the applications examined in light of the constitutional challenges are only those that involve authorization or prohibition of conduct; by contrast, the searches that will still be constitutional (via a warrant or an exception) do not directly involve the ordinance itself. By contrast, in this case, the municipal code creates a sanction for noncompliance with the police search of the records themselves, which is what is at issue here, and not for noncompliance with the request to search a room (backed by a warrant or an exception).
The requirement to keep a registry and provide it to officers upon request, under threat of arrest, is problematic because it does not allow for an opportunity to obtain precompliance review by a neutral decisionmaker: “A hotel owner who refuses to give an officer access to his or her registry”, writes Justice Sotomayor, “can be arrested on the spot. The Court has held that business owners cannot reasonably be put to this kind of choice”. For the ordinance to be constitutional, it is not necessary to have overview of each and every request for hotel records; it is, however, necessary to have the opportunity for overview “in those rare instances where a hotel operator objects to turning over the registry. ” This overview could come in the form of an administrative subpoena which, by contrast to a full search, does not require probable cause. And if there is concern that someone might tamper with the records, the police can guard the registry until the issue is resolved.
In his dissent, Justice Scalia argues that the motel owners’ petition is not a “case” or a “controversy”, and that whenever facial attacks have succeeded, they were not aimed at the law but at its application. And on the merits, hotels (like cars, other businesses, and administrative agencies) can constitute exceptions to the normal search and seizure laws because they are closely regulated businesses. Scalia proceeds to examine the arrangement under the ordinance and argues that it provides a reasonable balance between governmental interests and privacy interests.
In a separate dissent, Justice Alito argues that not all applications of the ordinance are against Fourth Amendment law, which does not award protections in many situations equivalent to those in the ordinance.
A few thoughts:
1. The examples provided by Justices Scalia and Alito in the dissenting opinions present motels as hotbeds of dangerous criminal activity, complete with child porn, murder, sexual assault, and kidnapping. Justice Sotomayor obviously avoids these examples. I like to draw my students’ attention to the fact that factual patterns, and examples, often explain judicial opinions, in that they drive the judicial imagination to the scenarios in which the law is likely to act.
2. I wonder if the dissent were less vociferous if the challenge to the ordinance came from five-star hotels, and not from motels.
3. The majority opinion suggests that there’s an “easy fix” for the ordinance: an administrative subpoena that can be challenged. How long could it possibly take for the City of Los Angeles to produce the requisite form and make the ordinance constitution-compliant?
Props to Mark Edwards for drawing my interest to this case.