The Fourth Amendment finds victory today in the Supreme Court case ruling of City of Los Angeles v. Patel. In a narrow 5-4 decision, the Court upheld a foundational principle of our constitution: Warrantless searches and seizures are unconstitutional.
The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures… and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause.” In the Patel case, a group of hotel operators in the LA area challenged an ordinance of the City of Los Angeles that required hotel and motel operators to keep records of specified information regarding guests and allow warrantless onsite inspections of such records by the Los Angeles Police Department. At the trial court level, the ordinance was found to be constitutional with no implications against the Fourth Amendment. It was not until a re-hearing at the appellate level of the Ninth Circuit that the ordinance was declared unconstitutional resulting in today’s affirmation of that decision.
Under the city ordinance, if the motel operator failed to provide access to the guest registry for police inspection, the operator faced an “intolerable risk… a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.” Police authority had access to registry information such as driver’s licenses and credit card numbers, opening the gates to identity theft and financial fraud.
The problem with the ordinance was not only police conducting warrantless searches of sensitive information, but a privacy violation of a core First Amendment interest of association for any guests relying on a hotel as a place of gathering for religious or political purposes.
The City argued the ordinance’s constitutionality rested on the fact that hotels and motels are subject to what is known as the general administrative search doctrine. Under this doctrine, for purposes of furthering an administrative goal, a search may be conducted without individualized probable cause. These searches are admissible for the primary goal of security, rather than for evidence of a crime. The Court denied classifying hotels as administrative, stating, “…nothing inherent in the operation of hotels poses a clear and significant risk to the public welfare.”
Further, the City claimed that if law enforcement is required to obtain a warrant or seek judicial review before accessing hotel registries, there is a greater likelihood that operators will then have a chance to falsify their records. Rejecting this argument as well, the Court made clear that today’s decision does nothing to preclude officers from making surprise inspection of a registry provided there is a warrant based on reasonable suspicion.
Today’s decision demonstrates the Court still acknowledges fundamental principles our country was founded on. The right to be secure from unreasonable government searches and seizures is a fundamental right that Americans hold firmly. The Court correctly ruled in favor of privacy rights in its decision.