A 116-year-old Los Angeles city ordinance that allowed police to make unannounced inspections of hotel guest registries at any time without a warrant or subpoena has been ruled as an unconstitutional violation of privacy by the United States Supreme Court.

The ordinance required Los Angeles hotel owners and operators to keep on record for 90 days guests’ names, addresses, vehicles, and other information, and to offer the data to law enforcement on demand without a warrant.  Hotel owners sued the city of Los Angeles over the law in 2003, claiming it violated their Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

The city argued that the ordinance is minimally intrusive and is a valuable deterrent against hotels that allow criminals to rent hotel rooms without taking down their information.

In a 5-4 decision in the case of City of Los Angeles v. Patel, the Supreme Court found that the ordinance was facially unconstitutional because it did not provide for judicial review of the reasonableness of an officer’s demand to search the registry before issuing penalties for noncompliance.

The recent decision does not require warrants or subpoenas for every hotel registry inspection.  Rather, it orders that these measures be in place for when they are needed, giving hotel owners the opportunity to challenge warrantless searches without facing jail time or fines.

The holding constitutes a small and very narrow victory for the Fourth Amendment rights of Los Angeles hotel owners.  The decision pertains solely to the Los Angeles ordinance and does not address the constitutionality of other, similar records sweeps allowed under the Third Party Doctrine.  Nor does it address the Fourth Amendment implications of the “pervasive regulation” of certain businesses—like the records legally required to be kept and provided to officers on demand by businesses like firearms dealers, pawn shops, and junkyards.