Vol. 29 No. 2 – Ninth Circut Rules That Cities Cannot Compel Motels To Provide Guest Information Without Consent Or A Warrant


On December 24, 2013, an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in Patel v. City of Los Angeles, ruled that an L.A. Municipal Code section which allows police officers to inspect hotel guest records, without the consent of the hotel owner or a warrant, is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.  Plaintiff motel owners brought a challenge to Los Angeles Municipal Code section 41.49 claiming that the warrantless inspection requirement of this local law is facially invalid under the Fourth Amendment.

Section 41.49 mandates hotel and motel operations to “keep records with specified information about their guests,” as well as authorizes “warrantless, on-site inspections of those records upon the demand of any police officer.” The section further states that failure on the part of the hotel/motel owner to comply immediately is punishable as a misdemeanor.

Protected by the Fourth Amendment

The federal district court ruled in favor of the City of Los Angeles, and plaintiff motel owners appealed to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

An en banc panel (11 justices) of the Court of Appeals first considered whether an LAPD officer’s non-consensual search of hotel/motel guest records under Section 41.49 triggers Fourth Amendment protections?  The Court stated that “we have little difficulty concluding that it does.”

“The Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects’ against unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. Amend. IV. A search occurs for Fourth Amendment purposes when the government physically intrudes upon one of these enumerated areas, or invades a protected privacy interest, for the purpose of obtaining information. The ‘papers’ protected by the Fourth Amendment include business records like those at issue here.” (Internal citations omitted).

The Court ruled that the hotel/motel owners have a constitutional property and privacy interest in their own business records; however, “the guests lack any privacy interest of their own in the hotel’s records.”  Once a guest provides the hotel with the information, he/she no longer can claim any privacy rights since the information has been voluntarily provided to the business.

Was The Search Reasonable?

Because the protections of the Fourth Amendment are implicated by Section 41.49, the next question addressed by the Court was whether the searches authorized by this law are reasonable?

The Court assumes that the searches authorized by Section 41.49 are for “administrative records inspections” and not for “searches of evidence of crime, or administrative searches of non-public areas of a business,” which ordinarily requires a warrant.  Nonetheless, the Court held, “even under the more lenient Fourth Amendment principles governing administrative records inspections, section 41.49 is facially invalid.”

The Court further assumes that the authorized record searches will occur only in areas already open to the public, such as the front desk of the hotel/motel, therefore precluding the need for an administrative search warrant. However, even with “these assumptions in mind, which give the city the benefit of the doubt at each turn,” Section 41.49 lacks an “essential procedural safeguard against arbitrary or abusive inspection demands.”

“The party subject to the demand must be afforded an opportunity to ‘obtain judicial review of the reasonableness of the demand prior to suffering penalties for refusing to comply.’”  Because Section 41.49 lacks this protection, the law is facially unconstitutional.

The Court held that as “presently drafted, section 41.49 provides no opportunity for pre-compliance judicial review of an officer’s demand to inspect a hotel’s guest records. If the hotel operator refuses the officer’s demand, she may be found guilty, without more, of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1000 fine. Hotel operators are thus subject to the ‘unbridled discretion’ of officers in the field, who are free to choose whom to inspect, when to inspect, and the frequency with which those inspections occur. Only by refusing the officer’s inspection demand and risking a criminal conviction may a hotel operator challenge the reasonableness of the officer’s decision to inspect. To comply with the Fourth Amendment, the city must afford hotel operators an opportunity to challenge the reasonableness of the inspection demand in court before penalties for non-compliance are imposed.”  (Internal citations omitted).

The Court does acknowledge, in a footnote, that “unannounced inspections without an opportunity for pre-compliance judicial review may be reasonable in certain closely regulated industries, such as mining and firearms. See, e.g. New York v. Burger, 482 U.S. 691, 702 (1987). As the district court correctly concluded, however, no serious argument can be made that the hotel industry has been subjected to the kind of pervasive regulation that would qualify it for treatment under the Burger line of cases.”

Additionally, this decision does not undermine other sources of authority for lawful searches of hotel/motel records by a police officer. As noted by the Court, “[i]f ‘exigent circumstances’ exist to justify a non-consensual inspection of hotel guest

records … officers may conduct such a search in compliance with the Fourth Amendment whether [a law similar to Section 41.49] is on the books or not.”


Municipal code sections which provide for warrantless on-site inspections of hotel/motel guest records by any police officer, without also providing hotel operators the opportunity to challenge the reasonableness of the police officer’s inspection demand in court are unconstitutional.

There is an obvious question raised by the Court’s decision: If law enforcement must first obtain consent, or secure a warrant, what purpose does a statute such as 41.49 serve?

It is one thing to require that the hotel/motel maintain such records, in order to provide law enforcement the opportunity to review them, either by securing consent or a warrant.  But is there any purpose to mandate that the business must make access available, absent consent or a warrant?

Nor does the Court articulate what process the hotel/motel owner could follow to secure judicial review of an officer’s demand.  Nonetheless, the burden is on law enforcement to conduct the search in a reasonable and lawful fashion.  As such, absent the consent of the business owner, securing a search warrant will avoid any of the issues raised by this decision.

Until, and unless, this matter is reviewed further, for example by the U.S. Supreme Court, this is binding law within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals.

With all legal issues, it is important to seek out and secure advice and guidance from your agency’s legal counsel.

As always, if you would like to discuss the ruling in Patel v. City of Los Angeles further, please do not hesitate to contact either Martin J. Mayer or Christopher F. Neumeyer at (714) 446-1400 or, respectively, at mjm@jones-mayer.com or cfn@jones-mayer.com.

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