A group of Los Angeles hotel owners challenged a Los Angeles city ordinance which authorizes police to search through hotels’ guest registers without a warrant. The City claimed that hotel owners have no expectation of privacy in a business record that they are required by the City to keep. And the City claimed it has a significant interest in fighting crimes committed in and around the hotel property. Thus, the City asserted that, in such a highly regulated industry, there is no need for probable cause, much less a warrant. In short, Los Angeles argued that the Fourth Amendment does not apply.
The trial court ruled for the City, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, ruling that searches and seizures under the City’s ordinance violate the Fourth Amendment. The City sought and was granted Supreme Court review.
CLDEF’s amicus curiae brief pointed out, in support of the hotel owners’ position, that business records located in commercial establishments, just like personal papers located in a private residence, are private property, and that both are equally protected by the Fourth Amendment. Indeed, the very roots of the Fourth Amendment can be traced directly to James Otis’ 1761 opposition to the Crown’s use of writs of assistance against merchants — allegedly to deter smuggling and other crimes.
The Supreme Court held that the Los Angeles ordinance requiring hotel operators to make their registries available to the police on demand is facially unconstitutional.