BB&K Police Bulletin: Police Need Search Warrant to Examine Hotel/Motel Registers

Municipal Code Section Allowing Warrantless Inspection of Hotel Guest Records Constitutes Search

Overview: The Ninth Circuit recently held that a police officer’s non-consensual warrantless inspection of hotel guest records under a municipal code requiring hotel guest records be made available to officers for inspection, constituted a Fourth Amendment “search.” The inspection was invalidated because the municipal code section did not afford hotel operators the opportunity to challenge the reasonableness of the officer’s inspection demand before penalties for non-compliance were imposed.

Training Points: Prior to enacting legislation permitting warrantless on-site inspections of hotel guest records by police officers, the code section should contain a provision allowing hotel operators the opportunity to challenge the reasonableness of the demand in court. Of course, officers can justify non-consensual warrantless inspection of hotel guest records under other exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as consent or exigent circumstances.

Summary Analysis: In Patel et al., v. City of Los Angeles, a group of Los Angeles hotel operators filed a civil rights action challenging a Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) which authorized warrantless, on-site inspections of hotel guest records by police officers. Under the code, if a hotel operator fails and/or refuses to comply with an officer’s inspection demand, he or she could be found guilty of a misdemeanor.

In finding the LAMC facially invalid, the court noted since record inspections involve a physical intrusion upon a hotel’s papers and an invasion of the hotel’s protected privacy interest in those papers, the hotel’s privacy and property interests were more than sufficient to trigger Fourth Amendment protections. The court noted that while this type of “search” could be compared to an administrative record type inspection rather than a search for evidence of a crime, the LAMC did not provide hotel operators the opportunity to have a court review the reasonableness of an officer’s demand prior to citing him or her with a misdemeanor for failing to comply. In other words, only by refusing the officer’s inspection demand and risking a criminal conviction could a hotel operator challenge the reasonableness of an officer’s decision to inspect.