The city of Los Angeles requires hotels and motels to keep tabs on customers. Guests' names and addresses are kept on file for 90 days. Cops have been free to barge in and rifle through guest logs, too.

Of course, this kind of power granted to officers opens all kinds of dark windows, including the almost noir-era specter of blackmail opportunities. Our boss doesn't call seedy inns “no-tell motels” for no reason. This policy requires you to tell.

Police and City Attorney's Office prosecutors argued that some of the city's 2,000 or so hotels are so rife with crime, including prostitution and drug dealing, that checking up on who checks in is completely reasonable.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today disagreed.

“We hold that 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,” the court said through Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The Supreme Court noted that this is what innkeepers are required to get from customers:

The guest’s name and address; the number of people in each guest’s party; the make, model and license plate number of any guest’s vehicle parked on hotel property; the guest’s date and time of arrival and scheduled departure date; the room number assigned to the guest; the rate charged and amount collected for the room; and the method of payment. 

If you pay with cash or rent a room for less than 12 hours, the stakes go higher: Hotels must keep your California ID number and expiration date on file. Innkeepers who don't get with the unconstitutional program face as much as six months behind bars and fines of up to $1,000.

“A hotel owner who refuses to give an officer access to his or her registry can be arrested on the spot,” the court said.

A group of lodge owners challenged the city's policy based on Fourth Amendment considerations. The Constitution forbids unreasonable searches and seizures, yet here we have police demanding hotel records whenever they please.

Cops demand records “without consent or warrant,” the court noted. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizure.”

The owners also argued that patrons had a reasonable expectation to privacy, a notion struck down by a lower court.

Credit: File photo by Michael Locke/L.A. Weekly Flickr pool

Credit: File photo by Michael Locke/L.A. Weekly Flickr pool

The court ruled that, at the least, a subpoena will now be required in order for cops to rifle through a guest registry. And if an owner objects, an administrative law judge can make the final call. Warrants will also do the trick.

The City Attorney's Office notes that hotel owners can still be required to keep records. The decision simply says that cops can't do their surprise inspections without a subpoena or warrant.

Here's what City Attorney Mike Feuer had to say:

The Court majority’s narrow ruling upholds the lion’s share of the motel registry law, including its record-keeping requirements, and offers a framework for how Los Angeles can protect public safety and satisfy the Court’s ruling. We believe we can craft an ordinance, consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision, which enables the City to renew our efforts to combat human trafficking and other crimes associated with these motels.

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