City ordinance requiring hotels to provide certain data to law enforcement equates to unconstitutional search and is facially invalid says U.S. Supreme Court

Los Angeles v. Patel 13-1175 (U.S. June 22, 2015)

In this case the U.S. Supreme Court analyzed the standards for making facial challenges to particular city ordinances. After analyzing the specific ordinance, the Court held the City’s ordinance unconstitutional.

The City of Los Angeles (“City”), requires hotel operators to record and keep specific information about their guests on the premises for a 90-day period. These records shall be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection for any reason without a warrant. Respondents, a group of motel operators and a lodging association, brought a facial challenge on Fourth Amendment grounds.  The trial court dismissed the suit holding respondents lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in their records. The Ninth Circuit subsequently reversed.

The Court first noted that while facial challenges are difficult to prosecute, they are still proper mechanisms to challenge unconstitutional ordinances/statutes. A facial challenge does not require a plaintiff to establish the law unconstitutional in all situations, only that it is unconstitutional in the situations it actually authorizes or prohibits conduct. As to the merits of the L.A. ordinance, the Court has repeatedly held searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by a judge are per se unreasonable . . . subject only to a few exceptions, such as exigent circumstances or administrative searches. The hotel ordinance does not fall under any such exception. “Absent an opportunity for precompliance review, the ordinance creates an intolerable risk that searches authorized by it will exceed statutory limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests.” The court emphasized that its holding is limited to the fact only an opportunity to object and force a neutral decision maker to review a request for the information is necessary. Actual third party decisions are not required as a condition to the initial inquiry by law enforcement.

Justice Scalia’s dissent focused on the fact that while the facial invalidation of a statute might be a logical consequence, it is not the case-or-controversy end result.  Further, he does not believe the search of business records in this manner is unreasonable as motels/hotels are closely regulated business enterprises. Justice Alito’s dissent focuses on his opinion the ordinance cannot be facially unconstitutional if there are any scenarios in which it would be constitutional (and he lists five).

If you would like to read this opinion click here. SOTOMAYOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS, J., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS, J., joined.