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Paul Zimmerman

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City of Los Angeles vs. Patel Update: U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Warrantless Searches of Guest Registries

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a law enacted by the City of Los Angeles requiring hotel owners to comply with warrantless inspections of their guest registries upon demand by law enforcement officers. The High Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, determined that the ordinance was unconstitutional because it did not allow hotels the opportunities to challenge (via judicial review) an inspection demand. As noted by the Court, "Absent an opportunity for precompliance review, the 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 guest...Even 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."

This ruling represents a massive shift in the landscape of hotel privacy rights, in that it likely invalidates dozens of similar laws enacted in other cities and states around the nation. The recognition that hotels have a privacy right in their business records consequently upends decades of warrantless searches of registries by law enforcement. It remains to be seen how existing laws will be modified in response to this decision.  However, for the time being, hotels can rejoice knowing that they now have an opportunity to challenge warrantless inspection demands.