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

By Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (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, according to the city's lawyers.

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.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said the bulk of the law, including a recordkeeping requirement, remains in place.

"We believe we can craft an ordinance, consistent with the Supreme Court's decision, which enables the city to renew our efforts to combat human trafficking and other crimes associated with these motels," Feuer added.

Tom Goldstein, a lawyer for the motel operators, said the ruling "recognized that the city could achieve its interests without sacrificing privacy."

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

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, 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 saying 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 said police will still be able to make surprise inspections by getting a warrant or when 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.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)