Jan 30 2014

9th Circuit overturns law making hotel guest registry an “open book” for police

Airlines and other common carriers aren’t the only travel companies that are sometimes required by governments to keep logs of their customers’ activities and make those records available to police.

Hotels, in particular, are often required or expected to spy on their customers for the (secret) police.

Sometimes, as in many European countries, this is mandated by national law. In the US, these requirements are more often encountered in state, county, and municipal codes.

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, after rehearing en banc, recently overturned one such local ordinance as being, on its face, a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

The ruling in Patel v. City of Los Angeles is indicative of what sorts of limits courts currently are, and aren’t, willing to put on these outsourced systems of government surveillance, and who has standing to challenge these requirements.

The case concerned Section 41.49 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code, “Hotel Registers and Room Rentals”, which requires that (1) any guest arriving without a reservation or paying for a room in cash must present a government issued identification document, (2) information about each guest including the details of the guest’s ID document and the license number of any vehicle parked on hotel premises by the guest must be recorded by the hotel in a written log book, card file, or electronic database, and (3) this guest register must be kept on the hotel premises, at or near the guest reception or check-in area, and “made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection” at any time.

It’s only that last detail of the law — the requirement that the guest register be “made available” to any police officer without warrant, without the consent of the hotelier or the guest, without any requirement for suspicion or probable cause, and without any possibility of judicial review of police demands for the guest register — that was overturned by the 9th Circuit.  The ID requirement in the L.A. ordinance was not challenged in this case.

The en banc majority in Patel v. City of Los Angeles starts by taking for granted that information provided by a guest in order to satisfy government conditions on the rental of a place to sleep is being provided “voluntarily”:

To be sure, the guests lack any privacy interest of their own in the hotel’s records. United States v. Cormier, 220 F.3d 1103, 1108 (9th Cir. 2000); see United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 440 (1976). But that is because the records belong to the hotel, not the guest, and the records contain information that the guests have voluntarily disclosed to the hotel.

Whatever validity this doctrine might have with respect to information provided “voluntarily” to a third party, a disclosure is scarcely “voluntary” when, as in this case, (a) it is required by law as a condition of availing oneself of the services of a place of public accommodation, and (b) the alternative to disclosure is sleeping in the street or on the sidewalk.  (Under another provision of the same LA Municipal Code, it’s illegal to sit, lie, or sleep in the street or on the sidewalk In the City of Angels. But as part of a settlement following an earlier, now voided, ruling by the 9th Circuit, the LAPD has agreed not to enforce that provision of the law.)

People with no other place to sleep have a “choice” of whether to rent a room or walk the streets all night the same way people required to show government-issued ID in order to fly from Hawaii to the US mainland have a “choice” of whether to fly or walk on water.

But the 9th Circuit was able to find the law in violation of the 4th Amendment, despite this fictive “voluntariness”, because the lawsuit was brought by hotel owners, not hotel guests.  It’s the hoteliers’ rights that the court found were violated by (involuntary) warrantless, suspicionless, extrajudicial police inspection of their business records about their guests.

We salute Naranjibhai Patel, Ramilaben Patel, and the Los Angeles Lodging Association for using their legal standing to challenge this law and insist that the police go to a judge and come back with a warrant.

Most travel companies are only too happy to collaborate with government agencies in spying on their customers. They’d prefer that governments pay them for their work as informers and data collectors, of course. But even without cash compensation, they benefit from being able to blame the government for intrusive demands for credentials and personal information, while getting a free ride to monetize this government-coerced informational windfall for their own marketing and other purposes.

We can find no record of any other case in which a travel company has challenged government demands for information about travelers. Nor have we found any travel company that makes public what government requests or demands it has received for data about its customers, how it has responded to those requests or demands, or how much information it has handed over.  (Google publishes a “transparency report” for its Web services, but makes no mention of the exchanges of data between Google’s ITA Software airline reservations and PNR-hosting component and government agencies in the US or abroad.)

Police have plenty of ways to make life hard for the proprietors of mom-and-pop motels on skid row.  If the plaintiffs in Patel v. City of L.A. could say “No” to big-city police demands for information about their customers and guests, and prevail in court, so could major hotel chains and other large travel companies. Travelers should demand that they do so.

4 thoughts on “9th Circuit overturns law making hotel guest registry an “open book” for police

  1. Pingback: Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Supreme Court to review Constitutionality of warrantless police access to hotel guest logs

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