A Supreme Court decision just took a little bit of ammunition away from the Los Angeles Police Department.
The high court struck down a Los Angeles ordinance that allowed local police to check guest registries at motels and hotels in the city at any hour of the day or night. The 5-4 decision upheld a ruling of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that vacated the law, saying it authorized unreasonable searches.
An article in The Los Angeles Times noted that most cities require the operators of a hotel or motel to keep a guest registry available for inspection. The Los Angeles city attorney's office said some of these motels become havens for prostitution, sex trafficking and drug dealing. The city then decreed that police officers need the authority to conduct spot checks.
A group of motel owners went to court, alleging that the spot checks late at night were intrusive and disruptive for families running the motels. The group won a broad ruling from the 9th Circuit Court that held the ordinance unconstitutional.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said motel owners deserve the right to go to a judge and to object before a search takes place.
"We hold that the provision of the Los Angeles Municipal Code that requires hotel operators to make their registries available to the police on demand is facially unconstitutional because it penalizes them for declining to turn over their records without affording them any opportunity for precompliance review," she said in Los Angeles vs. Patel.
Sotomayor said the law should protect business owners from possible harassment by the police.
Otherwise, a hotel could be "searched 10 times a day, every day, for three months, without any violation being found," she said. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan agreed. They said police may obtain a search warrant if they suspect criminal activity at a motel or hotel.
Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, saying that police should have not have to "jump through procedural hoops" to get a warrant.
He said "the costs of this always-get-a-warrant alternative would be prohibitive for a police force in one of America's largest cities, juggling numerous law-enforcement priorities and confronting more than 2,000 motels within its jurisdiction."
Huffington Post reported that previously, the federal appeals court in San Francisco divided 7-4 in ruling that the ordinance violates the privacy rights of the hotels, but not their guests.
Courts in other parts of the country have upheld similar laws.
Los Angeles requires hotels and motels to record basic information about guests and their vehicles. Guests without reservations, those who pay in cash and those who rent a room for less than 12 hours must also present photo identification at check in.
Nothing in the Supreme Court's ruling affects the record-keeping requirements.