June 22, 2015

Supreme Court Decides City of Los Angeles v. Patel

On June 22, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided City of Los Angeles v. Patel, No. 13-1175, holding that facial challenges can be brought under the Fourth Amendment and that a municipal ordinance requiring hotel operators to make certain guest records available to police on demand violates the Fourth Amendment because it provides the operators with no opportunity for precompliance review.

Los Angeles municipal code § 41.49(3)(a) requires “[e]very operator of a hotel to keep a record” with specific information about guests and to make this record available on demand “to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection.” An operator that fails to make the records available for police inspection can be punished by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. A group of motel operators and a lodging association sued the City of Los Angeles, challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance. After a bench trial, the District Court entered judgment in favor of the City, concluding that the operators had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the records and therefore could not sustain a facial challenge to the ordinance. A Ninth Circuit panel affirmed, but the full court reversed on rehearing en banc.

The Supreme Court affirmed. The Court first clarified that “facial challenges under the Fourth Amendment are not categorically barred or especially disfavored.” The Court rejected the City of Los Angeles’s argument that facial challenges to the ordinance must fail because the searches could be constitutional in some applications, as where police were responding to an emergency or acting under a judicial warrant. These examples did not preclude a facial challenge, said the Court, because they would be authorized irrespective of the ordinance and therefore would not involve “actual applications of the statute.”

The Court then concluded that the ordinance is facially unconstitutional because it fails to provide hotel operators with an opportunity for precompliance review. The searches at issue are administrative searches because they serve a “special need” of ensuring compliance with a recordkeeping requirement that “deters criminals from operating on the hotels’ premises.” For such an administrative search to be constitutional, its subject must be given the opportunity to obtain precompliance review before a neutral decisionmaker. The ordinance here provides no such precompliance review and therefore is facially invalid. The Court underscored the “narrow nature” of its holding. Hotel operators are still required under other parts of the ordinance to maintain guest registries containing certain information, and police may still obtain access to these documents if a hotel operator consents to a search, if the police obtain a proper administrative warrant, or if another exception to the warrant requirement applies. 

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan joined. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas. Justice Alito also filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Thomas.

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