L.A. v. Patel and what it means for hotel operators 

Asian Hospitality
July 8, 2015

More than a decade ago, a group of hotel owners sued Los Angeles. Now their actions have caused reverberations in hotels throughout the country.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 22 in City of Los Angeles v. Patel that the police practice of asking for a hotel’s guest registry without a warrant is unconstitutional.

“It’s certainly providing privacy protection and extending it to companies, both to the company owner and the guests that are there. It’s certainly a win for the hotels,” Attorney Dana Kravetz said.

“This is going to have widespread impact – and already has had widespread impact – on a host of cities and really the industry at large. It’s a powerful decision. It really sets it out pretty clearly as to what the police can or cannot do.”

This ruling goes beyond Los Angeles as so many other U.S. cities have similar ordinances, said Kravetz, managing partner of Michelman & Robinson and chair of the law firm’s hospitality group.

“It’s really a great day for the hotel industry,” said Frank Weiser, the attorney for the group of hotel owners (Patel). “It’s a great day for businesses throughout America.”

Balu Patel, an owner since 1973 who has 10 hotels and motels in Los Angeles, was one of the owners who sued the city. Police have visited his motels at night to demand the guest registry. Balu recalled one instance when officers handcuffed a friend’s wife at another hotel while they searched for the registry.

“They were just harassing us too much,” Balu said.

Los Angeles v. Patel concerned an ordinance in Los Angeles, but there are more than 100 similar register inspection laws in cities and counties across the U.S., according to Supreme Court documents. These cities include Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.

The group of hotel owners sued Los Angeles in 2003 and over the years, the case made its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld in a 5-4 ruling an earlier decision from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“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 pre-compliance review,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion.

Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the California Hotel & Lodging Association, emphasized that the ruling does not change that hotels must ask guests for certain information – it just bars police from demanding the registry without a warrant.

“I don’t see this offering hotels any kind of protection from bad things that are happening at their hotel or illegal activity, but it does make the police recognize that they have to have a reason to do this,” Mohrfeld said. “They can’t just go willy-nilly into a hotel at 3 a.m. and start demanding the guest register. That’s not going to happen anymore, which is a good thing for the industry.”

AAHOA filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court. At least six of AAHOA’s members were involved on the Patel side of the lawsuit, said Chirag Shah, government affairs manager and policy counsel for AAHOA.

“I was delighted by hearing the response from the Supreme Court and the ruling that will reach every corner of the country when it comes to setting privacy standards for hoteliers, staff and guests,” Shah said. “We’re very pleased that the court understood and reaffirmed the privacy rights of hoteliers.”

It could also benefit the wider American business community, Weiser said. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Google filed amici curiae supporting the Patel side. Weiser said just because a business – whether it is a hotel or something else – is required to keep records, does not mean it loses its Fourth Amendment rights.

“The businesses in America were very concerned,” he said. “It’s interesting that the hoteliers were the ones who brought it.”

The arm of the law

Questions about public safety arise as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling: What if police need to apprehend a criminal?

“From the police perspective, it requires a lot more preplanning, working within the judicial system in seeking out that warrant to make any sort of search,” Kravetz said. “Is it an increased hurdle? I suppose from a police perspective, yeah, it’s another hurdle they now need to jump over in order to look at those guest registries. But one would question why the ordinance was put in place to begin with. It sort of ignores the requirements to engage in a legal search.”

Todd Seiders is director of risk management for Petra Risk Solutions, which insures 3,500 hotels across the U.S. The retired policeman said the Supreme Court’s decision on the ordinance was long overdue.

“It was being used to circumvent case law and proper court procedure to obtain privacy information,” Seiders said. “The police were using these local laws to avoid having to go through judicial review. I think that’s where it became abusive.”

He said exceptions to the warrant law already exist; officers do not always need a warrant to obtain guest information and enter their room. Examples include the fresh pursuit law, which allows police to chase a suspect into a private place such as a hotel, and in cases where a guest’s life is in danger in the hotel room.

If officers require a warrant, Seiders said they can obtain search warrants by phone, rather than physically appearing before a judge. Police can get a warrant in an hour if needed, he said.

Shah of AAHOA said hoteliers must maintain a strong partnership with local law enforcement.

“While this ruling helps to protect hoteliers from the unfortunate cases where they may run into harassment, hoteliers have a very strong relationship with local law enforcement,” he said. “We want to make sure that our members continue to reach out to their law enforcement leaders and maintain a strong relationship with them in order to help promote public safety within the community.”

What to know as an hotelier

A police officer stops at a hotel late at night. He asks for the entire registry of guests staying at the hotel – names, home addresses, room numbers, dates of check-in and checkout. The officer doesn’t have a warrant, saying the practice is legal, and if the manager or owner behind the desk doesn’t comply, handcuffs will come out.

What should an hotelier do?

  • Be aware that due to the Supreme Court ruling, hotels now own guest information – and they have responsibility for guest privacy and releasing that information.“Now you need to protect it and you need to make sure you don’t give it to the wrong person,” Todd Seiders of Petra Risk Solutions said. “If [the police] come in and demand information, the hotel operator has a legal duty now to push back and clarify what the information is that they need and why they need it. And then they need to make a determination on whether they can release it.”
  • Print out news reports of the Supreme Court decision and show them to police if needed. “You want to cooperate with police as much as possible, but you also want to protect yourself against privacy claims from the guest, which are just as significant,” CH&LA CEO and President Lynn Mohrfeld said.
  • Be willing to cooperate and not just provide the officer with the Supreme Court’s opinion. “It’s an easy place to go for people to say, ‘Look, I’m being harassed.’ But the bottom line is if you want to run a clean operation, you need to come into the thinking that the police are not simply out to harass – that they’re actually there to protect the public and to create a safe environment,” Attorney Dana Kravetz said. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the owner to hide behind the law and simply be defiant when you’re working with the very police that might actually need to protect you later.”
  • Point out that the police do not have a warrant and then ask the officer to show a photo of the person he is seeking. Kravetz said the owner or manager could then confirm whether the person is present at the hotel. “If we know we have that guy in [room] No. 5 or No. 6, we can give them the key and everything,” Hotelier Balu Patel said. “We try to help the police.”
  • Do not require guests to sign a waiver releasing their information to police. Kravetz said the legal system requires a lot of information to be provided before people waive a constitutional right. “In any context in which we’re asking people to give up constitutional rights, the ability to do that freely, the ability to do that knowingly and being able to make a decision is paramount,” he said. “I’m not sure you want to be in the business of exposing yourself as an owner to requiring guests to give up constitutional rights to stay at your hotel. I think that’s a slippery slope that could get you in more liability than you ever thought of. While there may be the criminal aspect of the police, now you have a civil aspect in terms of you’re getting them to waive a constitutional right and then giving up their information and being exposed to a civil privacy claim.”