On June 22, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Los Angeles v. Patel, striking down a Los Angeles city ordinance that allowed law enforcement to inspect hotel guest registers on demand as facially unconstitutional. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Sotomayor held that the ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment by failing to provide for any form of review of search requests before hotels were forced to comply with law enforcement demands. According to the Court, this failure was fatal to the City of Los Angeles’ argument that the ordinance satisfies the requirements for the administrative search exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
The ordinance, Lost Angeles Municipal Code Section 41.49, required hotel operators to maintain records containing specified information about each hotel guest. Operators were required to make this information available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection on demand, and faced arrest and jail time for failure to comply. A group of hotel owners brought a facial constitutional challenge to the statute under the Fourth Amendment. After the district court ruled in favor of the city and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the hotels lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the records, the Ninth Circuit reversed after rehearing the case en banc. The Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision found not only that the records constituted the hotel’s “private property,” but that the ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment by failing to provide for an opportunity to obtain review of the search demand prior to punishment for a refusal to comply.
The Supreme Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s holding, finding that the ordinance failed to meet the requirements for the administrative exception to the search warrant. First, the Court held that facial challenges are permitted under the Fourth Amendment, although Justice Sotomayor cautioned that such challenges are “unlikely to succeed where there is substantial ambiguity as to what conduct a statute authorizes.” Turning to the merits of the claim, the Court held that the ordinance did not satisfy the requirements for the administrative search exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. According to the Court, unless consent or exigent circumstances exist, the administrative search exception only applies if the subject of the search is provided with “an opportunity to obtain pre-compliance review before a neutral decisionmaker.” Justice Sotomayor emphasized that the Court’s decision only requires “an opportunity” for pre-compliance review, such as that provided by an administrative subpoena, and a review would not need to occur if the hotel operator voluntarily complied. An officer would also have the power to seize the registry, pending the outcome of a challenge to the search, if the officer reasonably suspects that the hotel operator may tamper with the registry.
Justice Scalia, joined in his dissent by Justice Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts, argued that the ordinance was facially constitutional due to the hotel industry’s status as a “closely regulated business.” Justice Sotomayor’s majority opinion disagreed, noting that the Court’s jurisprudence has only identified a limited number of closely regulated industries, of which hotels are not one. In addition, the Court noted that the warrantless inspections were not necessary to the statutory scheme and the inspection program did not include adequate safeguards regarding the frequency and consistency of its application.
While the Court’s decision may be of limited impact in circumstances involving exigent circumstances or other exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as within the national security context, the decision does establish that more ordinary administrative searches must provide some form of pre-compliance review. The Court does allow for relatively simple methods of compliance, such as an administrative subpoena, which can be issued without a showing of probable cause. However, the Court’s holding will establish some safeguards, however limited, for businesses and individuals to obtain review of certain government requests for information.