Christmas time was heating up for some major travel related court decisions!
December 24, 2013 (Christmas Eve) brought two travel related federal court opinions under @travelblawg‘s tree.
The first one I mentioned here and includes a link to the long and interesting 3rd Circuit opinion: Court Grants TSA FBI Immunity Protection After Detention Over Arabic Flashcards
The second “gift” comes from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in its en banc opinion (i.e. case opinion by all siting justices) in Patel v. City of Los Angeles (Case No. 08-56567; PDF available here). In a 7-4 vote, the court struck down a portion of L.A.’s Municipal Code as unconstitutional (violating the Fourth Amendment) insofar as it allows law enforcement officers to examine hotel records without a warrant, i.e. without affording an opportunity to obtain prior judicial review.
As a prostitution/drug dealing deterrence and likely intelligence gathering method, the City required hotels to create and maintain guest records to include:
- Record each guest’s name and address, number of people in the party, and any related party’s vehicle’s make/model/license plate parked on-site.
- Record the guest’s date and time of arrival/departure, room number assigned, rate charged/collected, and method of payment.
- If cash is paid for the room OR guest did not have a reservation OR rents a room for <12 hours, then the records must also contain the number and expiration date of the identification document the guest presented when checking in.
- If the guest checks in using an electronic kiosk, hotel operators must record the guest’s name, reservation and credit card information, and the room number assigned to the guest.
All such guest records had to be “kept on the hotel premises in the guest reception or guest check-in area or in an office adjacent to that area” for a period of 90 days and “be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection,” which the city said gave it the right to inspect the records at any time. Failure to comply with an officer’s inspection demand is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Two hotel owners sued the City of Los Angeles by filing a federal “1983 action” (42 U.S.C. § 1983) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief barring continued enforcement of the Ordinance’s warrantless inspection provision on the ground that it is facially invalid (read: unconstitutional) under the Fourth Amendment.
The federal district court held a bench trial and found in favor of the City of Los Angeles, saying the plaintiffs could not assert their guests’ privacy rights. A three-judge appellate court panel affirmed the district court’s judgment before the court voted to hear the case en banc which led to this decision.
In overturning the district court, the 9th Circuit determined that the hotel operators did have Fourth Amendment protection of its business records, even for a public health and safety enforcement assertion by the government.
When the government seeks access to non-public areas of a business to enforce health and safety regulations, an administrative search warrant is generally required before that greater level of intrusion is permitted. … The government may ordinarily compel the inspection of business records only through an inspection demand “sufficiently limited in scope, relevant in purpose, and specific in directive so that compliance will not be unreasonably burdensome.” (my emphasis)
The court goes on to emphasis the lack of judicial review in resisting or questioning the enforcement of the Ordinance:
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. [Citation omitted.] 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. (my emphasis)
This 9th Circuit court’s decision may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Consequently, the City of L.A. may amend or strike (in part) the Ordinance to attempt to comply with the court’s interpretation of what is constitutional.