— 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 government 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, firearms 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 trafficking 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.