The Supreme Court has found unconstitutional on its face a Los Angeles ordinance requiring operators of hotels and motels to demand specified personal information from and about each guest and their behavior (date and time of arrival and departure, license plate number of the vehicle in which they arrived, etc.), log this travel metadata, and make this log (“guest register”) available for warrantless, suspicionless inspection by police at any time, under penalty of immediate arrest and imprisonment of the hotelier, without possibility of judicial review before complying with a demand for inspection.
The Supreme Court rejected the contention that hotels are so instrinsically dangerous as to justify their treatment as a “closely regulated industry” subject to inspection (i.e. search) without probable cause: “[N]othing inherent in the operation of hotels poses a clear and significant risk to the public welfare.” By implication, this is a significant rebuff to post-9/11 (and pre-9/11) arguments that travel or travelers are per se suspicious, and to claims that there is or should be some sort of travel (or travel industry) exception to the Fourth Amendment.
And lest anyone be tempted to say that travel services providers with legally-imposed duties to accommodate the public are somehow different when it comes to the applicability of the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court also found that, “laws obligating inns to provide suitable lodging to all paying guests are not the same as laws subjecting inns to warrantless searches.” The same logic, of course, would appear to apply to common carriers, who are obligated by law to provide transportation to all paying passengers.
The ruling by the Supreme Court in Los Angeles v. Patel upholds an en banc decision last year by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a lawsuit first brought seven years ago by hotel owners Naranjibhai Patel and Ramilaben Patel and by the Los Angeles Lodging Association, an association of Indian-American proprietors of the sort of budget hotels that might, if allowed to do so by the government, provide accommodations of last resort to people without government-issued ID credentials who would otherwise have to sleep on the streets or under bridges.
We again commend Messrs. Patel and the LA Lodging Association for doing the right thing and standing up for their customers, even as small business owners highly vulnerable to police harassment and retaliation for questioning authority.
The Supreme Court ruling addresses only the rights of hotel owners, not those of hotel guests, and does noting in itself to establish a right to obtain lodging without having or showing government-issued permission papers. Nor does it address the requirement for hotels to monitor and log their guests’ identities and activities — only the requirement to make those logs available to the government without any possibility of prior judicial review of government demands for access.
As others have noted, and as we discussed in relation to the 9th Circuit’s decision and the Supreme Court’s decision to review it, much of the logic of this decision is equally applicable to other dragnet travel surveillance schemes involving compelled compilation, retention, and government access to travel metadata held by third parties (in this case, hotels) rather than by travelers themselves.
But as we have also noted before, this remains the only case we are aware of in which any of those travel companies — not just hotels but also airlines and other types of travel companies– have gone to court to challenge government demands for information about their customers.
Especially in light of this decision by the Supreme Court, it should be apparent that there’s an Achilles heel for the government to the “third-party” doctrine that individuals have no standing to challenge government demands for information provided to and held by third parties, because that information is owned by those third parties and not by the individuals to whom it pertains: As this case makes clear, those third parties — not just hotels but also airlines and others — do have standing to challenge these demands, and have a good chance of success if they persevere.
The shame is on larger travel companies with deeper pockets for going along with government surveillance of their customers and guests without question, and leaving it to highly vulnerable small businesses with fewer resources to challenge this dragnet travel surveillance scheme.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in L.A. vs. Patel, there’s more reason than ever for travelers to demand that all travel companies make public, contractually binding commitments, in their tariffs or terms of service, not to disclose information about their customers to the government without challenging those demands and without seeking to notify their customers of those demands.