Hotels now have the right to protect guests' privacy — but only if they want to

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When you stay at a hotel (or motel), in addition to revealing your smoking and bed size preferences, you typically have to hand over quite a lot of other information: your driver's license, a credit card, your car make and model (if you drove there), and the number of people staying with you. That's not just for the hoteliers' records. Many cities and states have laws on the books that require hotels to collect that information from guests and to show it to police if they stop by. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the latter is unconstitutional.

In Los Angeles, if a hotel owner refused to let police peek at their records, he or she could be charged with a misdemeanor, meaning potential jail time and a $1,000 fine. Disturbingly, as pointed out by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic, the law turned hotels into a kind of state surveillance arm — forcing them to collect detailed information and then forcing them to turn it over without any judicial process. A group of L.A. hotel owners sued the city, saying this violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches; in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court agreed with them. That means a hotel now has the right to protect guests' privacy — but only if it wants to.

Warrantless searching of hotel registries has been the state of things for more than a century. Even this case, The City of Los Angeles v Patel, was originally filed in 2003 and took over a decade to work its way through the court system. The government said it needed the right to search hotel registries on the fly to prevent drug dealing, prostitution and human trafficking, with the Court specifically mentioning the smuggling of immigrants. Stopping by the seedy hotels to see who is staying in them can be a useful technique for cops; during oral argument on this case, the government says it also helps cops make sure that hotels are registering all their guests and not letting criminals pay extra to have their stay be kept off the books. As the dissenting justices wrote in their opinion, "motels not only provide housing to vulnerable transient populations, they are also a particularly attractive site for criminal activity."


They are also places where people go to have affairs — which isn't something those people would likely want the government to know about.

The Court ruled that, even if they are dens of iniquity, hotels and motels have the right to privacy in their business records and shouldn't be forced to hand them over unless police have reasonable suspicion about their guests and a judicial order.


But that's only if the innkeeper wants the police to jump through a legal hoop. If it prefers, a hotel can hand over their guests' deets of their own volition. Motel 6 in Rhode Island, for example, hands over its guest lists to the police every day, according to the Providence Journal, due "to concerns it was becoming a haven for passing criminals." The hotel also shares with authorities its national "do-not-rent list" of people who are no longer allowed to stay at hotel because of trouble or lack of payment in the past, which the town's mayor said it would share with other hotels so they'd know which guests to avoid.

So now when considering a hotel's amenities, like Wi-Fi, a gym, or a pool, you might ask whether they require a warrant to let police browse through their guest records.