The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that police cannot force hotel and motel owners to let them search through guest registries without first giving them a chance to go before a judge.
The 5-4 decision repealed a Los Angeles law that required hotel and motel owners to keep lists of their guests and let the police inspect them on demand.
The majority opinion said that the law violated the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches because it allowed the police to arrest owners who did not comply, without first giving them the chance to fight the search in court.
That lack of judicial review creates “an intolerable risk” that police would search more than the law allows, or use it as “a pretext to harass hotel operators or their guests,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
Lawyers for police argued the searches were necessary when investigating crimes such as human trafficking, drug dealing and prostitution.
They had previously prevailed in two lower court hearings before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled against them and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.
The court majority ruled that even though such registries have been subject to inspection for centuries, the 4th Amendment generally requires at least the chance for a judge to be involved before a search actually takes place.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito all dissented.
Motels, Scalia wrote, “are a particularly attractive site for criminal activity.” He said they “have been employed as prisons for migrants smuggled across the border and held for ransom … and rendezvous sites where child sex workers meet their clients.”
Under those circumstance, he said, it is not unconstitutional to allow the police “to flip through a guest register.”
Under Monday’s narrow decision, hotel owners can still give police permission to search their registries if they want to, and police can still conduct surprise inspections so long as they go to a judge first to get a warrant.