A Number of Misunderstandings

Los Angeles passed an ordinance requiring hotel operators to give up data in their guest registers to the police, even when they don’t have a warrant.

The ordinance, approved by the city in 2006, requires hotels to collect and maintain guest information such as name and address, the number of people in the guest’s party, vehicle information, arrival and checkout dates, room number, and method of payment. Hotel operators who fail to comply with it face as many as six months behind bars and a $1,000 fine.

A motel operator demurred, and at this point, the 9th Circuit agrees: they struck the ordinance as unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment.

There are a couple of fundamental misunderstandings, though. One is in the 9th‘s ruling, paraphrased by Joe Palazzolo at the above link:

[H]otels have an interest in keeping guest records private, even if the guests themselves have no such privacy rights because they willingly give their information to a third party.

Guests do have a legitimate expectation of privacy regarding “their information,” though. They’re not giving their information to “a” third party; they’re giving it to a particular third party as a necessary thing so that the particular third party can provide the contracted service. Moreover, much of the information that is given over is not necessary for the transaction to occur; it’s mandated by a different third party—a government entity, for the government’s convenience.

A second misunderstanding is in the argument offered by LA’s lawyers.

These laws expressly help police investigate crimes such as prostitution and gambling, capture dangerous fugitives and even authorize federal law enforcement to examine these registers, an authorization which can be vital in the immediate aftermath of a homeland terrorist attack[.]

Say that’s all true. Get a warrant. Time hardly seems of the essence in these hypotheticals, even with the apocalyptically offered “homeland terrorist attack:” the cops are unlikely to be near the hotel or motel when an attack goes in. If time really is of the essence, come armed with a warrant in the first place; they’re disappointingly easy to get.

A third misunderstanding is in Judge Richard Tallman’s dissent, again summarized by Palazzolo.

[T]he hoteliers challenging the ordinance failed to show that police were applying the statute in an unconstitutional way.

The hoteliers had no requirement to do so. The law must be constitutional in the first place; its application by the police is wholly irrelevant after its unconstitutionality is shown.

The matter now is before the Supreme Court, and we’ll learn later who’s right. Legally, anyway.

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