Supreme Court strikes down L. A. mo­tel law

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By David G. Sav­age

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Mon­day struck down as un­con­sti­tu­tional a Los An­ge­les city or­di­nance that au­tho­rized po­lice to in­stantly in­spect ho­tel and mo­tel guest reg­istries at any hour of the day or night.

The rul­ing in Los An­ge­les vs. Pa­tel marks one of the rare times the high court has re­stricted the right of gov- ern­ment of­fi­cials to ac­cess busi­ness records.

But in a 5- 4 de­ci­sion, the jus­tices un­ex­pect­edly con­cluded that the or­di­nance vi­o­lated the 4th Amend­ment’s ban on “un­rea­son­able searches” be­cause the mostly small- busi­ness own­ers had no right to ob­ject to the sur­prise in­spec­tions, even if they sus­pected the po­lice were ha­rass­ing them need­lessly.

“Even if a ho­tel has been searched 10 times a day, ev­ery day,” Jus­tice So­nia So­tomayor said, the owner “can be ar­rested on the spot” for re­fus­ing an of­fi­cer’s re­quest to check the reg­istry. She said the city must give mo­tel own­ers “an op­por­tu­nity” to seek a hear­ing from an ad­min­is­tra­tive judge be­fore the search pro­ceeds.

It was one of two de­ci­sions Mon­day in which small- busi­ness own­ers pre­vailed in dis­putes over pri­vate prop­erty and gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion.

In the case of a Cal­i­for­nia raisin grower, the court said it was un­con­sti­tu­tional for a gov­ern­ment- backed farm board to seize part of his crop with­out pay­ing for it. In

the case of the Los An­ge­les mo­tels, the jus­tices said it was un­con­sti­tu­tional for po­lice to have an en­tirely free hand to search guest reg­istries.

Jus­tice An­thony M. Kennedy joined both ma­jor­ity opin­ions, sid­ing with the court’s four lib­er­als in the mo­tel de­ci­sion and with the four con­ser­va­tives in the raisins case.

Most cities have laws re­quir­ing that ho­tels and mo­tels main­tain a guest reg­istry, and noth­ing in Mon­day’s opin­ion af­fects those laws, So­tomayor said.

So­tomayor ac­knowl­edged that the court in the past had said the records of cer­tain busi­nesses — such as liquor stores, f irearms ven­dors, auto junk­yards and mines — can be sub­ject to spot checks with­out law en­force­ment agents ob­tain­ing a search war­rant. But she said ho­tels and mo­tels, un­like the other busi­nesses, do not pose a “clear and sig­nif­i­cant risk to the public wel­fare” and there­fore are not sub­ject to the same level of po­lice scru­tiny.

“We hold that the pro­vi­sion of the Los An­ge­les Mu­nic­i­pal Code that re­quires ho­tel op­er­a­tors to make their reg­istries avail­able to the po­lice on de­mand is fa­cially un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause it pe­nal­izes them for de­clin­ing to turn over their records with­out af­ford­ing them any op­por­tu­nity for pre­com­pli­ance re­view,” she said.

Her opin­ion was signed by Kennedy and Jus­tices Ruth Bader Gins­burg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Ka­gan.

Los An­ge­les City Atty. Mike Feuer called it a “nar­row rul­ing that up­holds the lion’s share of the mo­tel reg­istry law.... We be­lieve we can craft an or­di­nance, con­sis­tent with the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion, which en­ables the city to re­new our ef­fort to com­bat hu­man traff ick­ing and other crimes as­so­ci­ated with these mo­tels.”

With more than 2,000 mo­tels in its ju­ris­dic­tion, the city had in­sisted it needed the or­di­nance be­cause some of the es­tab­lish­ments were serv­ing as “park­ing me­ter mo­tels” that had be­come havens for pros­ti­tu­tion, sex traf­fick­ing and drug deal­ing.

But a group of mo­tel own­ers went to court, ar­gu­ing the late- night searches of fam­ily- run busi­nesses amounted to ha­rass­ment. They lost be­fore a fed­eral judge, but last year, the U. S. 9th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals in a 9- 2 de­ci­sion de­clared the city’s or­di­nance un­con­sti­tu­tional.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the city’s ap­peal, and af­firmed the 9th Cir­cuit’s con­clu­sion that the law must give mo­tel own­ers a right to ob­ject be­fore a judge or mag­is­trate.

In dis­sent, Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia said the “lim­ited in­spec­tion of a guest reg­istry is em­i­nently rea­son­able.” The po­lice should not have to “jump through pro­ce­dural hoops” to get a war­rant, he added.

Chief Jus­tice John G. Roberts Jr. and Jus­tices Clarence Thomas and Sa­muel A. Al­ito Jr. joined his dis­sent.

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