SCOTUS to consider police searches of hotel registries

Can the police show up at a hotel and demand to the see the guest registry to determine who is staying there without obtaining a warrant from a judge? According to a law on the books in Los Angeles they can, or at least they could until the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down. Now the Supreme Court will take up the question.

The laws “expressly help police investigate crimes such as prostitution and gambling, capture dangerous fugitives and even authorize federal law enforcement to examine these registers, an authorization which can be vital in the immediate aftermath of a homeland terrorist attack,” the city argued in its petition.

The law requires hotel owners to keep detailed records of guests, including identification, method of payment, the license plate numbers of their cars and how much they paid. For guests who pay in cash or stay for less than 12 hours, it requires even more details.

The hotel owners say they have no problem with that part of the law, and courts have ruled that hotel guests have no reasonable expectation of privacy about information they disclose to a third party.

But the appeals court ruled 7 to 4 that hotel owners should not have to make the records subject to police inspection on demand, without judicial supervision.

The 4th Amendment assures us that citizens shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects and will not be subject to search absent the issuance of a warrant upon probable cause. That primarily applies in our homes – whether owned or rented – but also inside of a hotel room. But what about the information in the guest registry? When you venture out from your home, your expectation of privacy and freedom from scrutiny decreases drastically, but the registry isn’t really yours. It’s the property of the hotel, and the courts have apparently already found that such information can be requested by the courts.

But do the cops have to go get a warrant before they can take a peek? It sounds to me like that’s up to the hotel management if such a court order isn’t presented. Exceptions could – and should – obviously be made for emergency situations where waiting for a warrant might result in injury, death or imminent danger to the public. But the same thing applies to your house, and under those conditions the police can barge in there also, with the ability to use what they find at trial. (Assuming they can satisfy the judge that it was a true threat of imminent danger.)

I suppose the fear here is that police could use the information for a fishing expedition. And when the most common uses listed are the case – prostitution and gambling – it’ hard to argue that there is an immediate threat to the public which couldn’t wait for a judge to be woken up to sign off on it. My guess is that the Supremes will strike this one down.