Privacy of hotel guest lists at issue
The Supreme Court, taking on an issue that reaches hotels and motels across the nation, agreed on Monday to rule on the power of city governments to require commercial lodgings to open their guest lists to the police. In agreeing to hear a Los Angeles case, the Justices also said they would rule on whether a lawsuit can be filed to use the Fourth Amendment to strike down a police inspection law in its entirety, whatever the factual situation in a given case.
The case of Los Angeles v. Patel was one of three new cases the Justices accepted for review. The Court also asked for the federal government’s views on whether the Justices should conduct a trial on a claim by Mississippi that the city of Memphis and its water utility, backed by the state of Tennessee, are illegally pumping water out of an underground formation on Mississippi’s side of the border. In the case of Mississippi v. Tennessee (143 Original), Mississippi is seeking money damages and a court order against further pumping.
Other issues in the newly granted cases focus on whether federal courts have power to order that guns taken from an individual during a drug prosecution should be transferred when the case is over to a neighbor or a friend to whom the owner wanted to sell them (Henderson v. United States), and whether it is unconstitutional for a state court to exclude an accused individual and defense lawyers from a hearing to examine the legality of prosecutors’ exclusion of minority jurors from serving (Chappell v. Ayala). The Ayala case also includes an issue on the scope of federal appeals courts in habeas cases. Oral argument in the three new cases is likely in the February sitting, which continues into the first week of March.
The hotel guest list case involves a Los Angeles city ordinance that gives local police the authority to inspect hotel guest records at any time, without a search warrant and without the hotel’s consent. At issue in the case is both whether hotels have any commercial privacy interest in their guest records, and whether, if they do, police must first get a court’s permission before examining those documents.
In taking the case to the Supreme Court, however, the city also raised a question that, depending on how the Supreme Court answers it, could end the case without a ruling at this point on the privacy of hotel guest lists. That is the question of whether a “facial challenge” is ever allowed against a law that allegedly violates the Fourth Amendment. Because the Fourth Amendment focuses on whether a search is “reasonable,” the specific facts in a case may have a strong bearing on whether that test is satisfied. In a facial challenge, however, the test is whether a law can be used in any case, no matter what the facts are. If facial challenges to such claims are barred, then the only legal avenue open is a challenge to the law as carried out in a given factual scenario.
The city told the Court that there are at least seventy laws at the state and local level across the country that permit police to inspect hotel guest records without prior court approval. “These laws,” the city petition said, “expressly help police investigate crimes such as prostitution and gambling, capture dangerous fugitives and even authorize federal law enforcement to examine these registers — an authorization which can be vital in the immediate aftermath of a domestic terrorist attack.”
Among cases that the Court refused to review, these were significant: In Aguiar v. United States, the Court declined to further clarify when police or federal agents may use GPS tracking devices to follow the movement of a suspect over a period of time, and in Louisiana ex rel. Ballay v. BP Exploration & Production, Inc., the Court turned aside a plea by local prosecutors in Louisiana to revive their damage claim lawsuits against various oil industry companies for the killing and maiming of wildlife as a result of the massive oil spill of the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011.
[Disclosure: Goldstein & Russell, P.C., whose attorneys contribute to this blog in various capacities, is among the counsel to the respondents in City of Los Angeles v. Patel. And John Elwood, another regular contributor to this blog, is among the counsel to the petitioner in Henderson. However, the author of this post is not affiliated with either firm.]