June 22, 2015 / 3:39 PM / 3 years ago

U.S. top court throws out Los Angeles ordinance giving police access to hotel records

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a Los Angeles ordinance that lets police view hotel guest registries without a warrant violates the privacy rights of business owners, taking away what the city called a vital tool to fight prostitution and other crimes.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices upheld an appeals court ruling that struck down the ordinance, saying it infringed upon hotel operators’ rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful searches and seizures.

More than 100 other jurisdictions across the United States have similar laws that could be affected by the court’s ruling, the city’s lawyers said in court papers.

Los Angeles appealed after the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the ordinance in December 2013.

The ordinance requires hotel and motel operators to collect a detailed list of information on each guest, including name and address, car model, license plate number and method of payment.

The records are available for inspection by the police department at any time, without a warrant.

The city called the law crucial to efforts to reduce criminal activity, especially in so-called parking meter motels that charge by the hour and are often used for prostitution and other crimes.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the court, said the ordinance penalizes hotel operators “for declining to turn over their records without affording them any opportunity for pre-compliance review.”

Sotomayor noted that hotel operators can be arrested on the spot if they refuse to give police access to their records. As such, the law could be used “as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests,” Sotomayor wrote.

The court’s four liberals were joined in the ruling by Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often casts the decisive vote in close cases.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion warning that the ruling would hamper law enforcement efforts.

“Criminals, who depend on the anonymity that motels offer, will balk when confronted with a motel’s demand that they produce identification. And a motel’s evasion of the recordkeeping requirement fosters crime,” Scalia wrote.

Sotomayor noted that police will still be able to make surprise inspections by getting a warrant or in instances in which an officer suspects the hotel operator might tamper with the registry.

The case is City of Los Angeles v. Patel, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-1175.

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