City of Los Angeles v. Naranjibhai Patel

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided City of Los Angeles v. Naranjibhai Patel.


Does the Fourth Amendment provides grounds for facial challenges of a statute or ordinance, and if so, is an ordinance that requires hotel guests to supply information to a hotel guest registry and authorizes police to inspect such a registry without a warrant or pre-compliance judicial review constitutional?

Oral argument: 
March 3, 2015

Patel, with other Los Angeles motel and hotel owners, challenged Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.49 (“Section 41.49”) alleging that it violated the Fourth Amendment on its face. Asserting that it had a compelling interest in fighting crimes such as human trafficking and prostitution, which frequently involve hotels and motels in their operation, the City of Los Angeles responded that inspections under Section 41.49 are reasonable, and constitutional applications of Section 41.49 exist. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will determine whether similar laws and ordinances not only in California but also in other states, as well as in other industries, can continue to operate, and whether a compelling government interest in crime deterrence can justify consentless police searches free of judicial review.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

  1. To resolve a split between the Ninth and Sixth Circuits are facial challenges to ordinances and statutes permitted under the Fourth Amendment?
  2. To resolve a spilt between the Ninth Circuit and the Massachusetts Supreme Court, does a hotel have an expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment in a hotel guest registry where the guest supplied information is mandated by law and that ordinance authorizes the police to inspect the registry? If so, is the ordinance facially unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment unless it expressly provides for pre-compliance judicial review before the police can inspect the registry?


Respondents (“Patel”) are the Los Angeles Lodging Association and “approximately forty hotel owners,” including Naranjibhai Patel, who operate their businesses in Los Angeles. Patel challenged Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.49 (“Section 41.49”), which, among other things, mandates that hotel and motel operators must keep detailed records of their guests, such as their guests’ name, address, vehicle identification, arrival and departure time, payment method, and room number. Patel, however, did not object to the collection of such records; rather, Patel challenged an additional provision, which required that hotel operators must provide such records to “any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection.” Petitioner, the City of Los Angeles (“Los Angeles”), acknowledged that this provision gives police officers the authority to demand hotel records “without consent or a search warrant.” To prevail, Patel’s facial challenge needed to convince the court that “no set of circumstances exists under which” Section 41.49’s warrantless inspection provision would be lawful. Holding that Patel did not meet this “high burden,” the United States District Court for the Central District of California rejected Patel’s claim that Section 41.49 violated the Fourth Amendment and held that the ordinance is reasonable and measured to accomplish Los Angeles’ goal to “fight crime in hotels and motels.”

Patel appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Ninth Circuit”). After an initial dismissal by a three-judge panel, the Ninth Circuit granted a rehearing. On rehearing, the en banc panel reversed the previous decision and upheld Patel’s facial challenge. The en banc panel held that a warrantless, non-consensual inspection of hotel or motel records amounts to a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, and because such a search would be sanctioned without the opportunity for prior judicial review, this “procedural deficiency” rendered all applications of Section 41.49 unconstitutional.

After the Ninth Circuit’s decision, Los Angeles appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on October 20, 2014 to determine whether Section 41.49 is unconstitutional on its face and whether hotel owners have an expectation of privacy in hotel guest records that must be protected through pre-compliance judicial review.


As a preliminary matter, the Court must decide whether the Fourth Amendment provides grounds for facial challenges to statutes or ordinances. Los Angeles argues that the Fourth Amendment is not an appropriate basis for such a facial challenge, and that instead, the Fourth Amendment only provides grounds for challenging statutes or ordinances as-applied. Conversely, Patel contends that the Court may entertain facial challenges under the Fourth Amendment, and that a statute or ordinance is facially unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment if it lacks procedural safeguards that the Constitution requires or if it would be unconstitutional in all of its applications.

If the Court holds that the Fourth Amendment does provide grounds for facial challenges to statutes or ordinances, it must then decide whether Section 41.49 violates the Fourth Amendment. Los Angeles argues that Section 41.49 satisfies the Fourth Amendment because searches pursuant to Section 41.49 fall under an exception to the warrant requirement for “pervasively regulated” industries, such as the hotel industry, that the ordinance in question is necessary to further a regulatory regime that Los Angeles has a substantial interest in, and that the ordinance provides an adequate substitute for a warrant. Patel responds that the hotel industry is not “pervasively regulated”; the exception that Los Angeles invokes thus does not apply and that even if the exception did apply, conducting searches under Section 41.49 without affording hotel owners judicial review is not necessary to enforce the ordinance; and the ordinance “does not sufficiently limit” police officers’ discretion to conduct warrantless searches.


Rather than challenging a particular search under Section 41.49, Patel has challenged the ordinance on its face; however, Los Angeles asserts that constitutionality under the Fourth Amendment depends upon the reasonableness of a particular search pursuant to a challenged law, and therefore, Patel’s facial challenge to Section 41.49 is improper. Although Los Angeles concedes that certain constitutional rights, such as the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, are amenable to facial challenges, it asserts that facial challenges are generally disfavored because they effectively ask the judiciary to strike down a law regardless of how the law operates in application. As support, Los Angeles points out that the Court has never struck down a statute on the basis that it authorizes unreasonable searches and seizures, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, without a factual record of the statute in application.

In response, Patel argues that despite the general attitude against facial challenges, the Court has entertained such suits in a broad array of constitutional contexts, including cases that require the Court to balance state and private interests. Moreover, Patel asserts that the Court has struck down laws under the Fourth Amendment, holding that such statutes were unconstitutional in any of their applications rather than simply on the facts before the Court in particular cases. Patel therefore contends that, although the Court may not have explicitly deemed such cases as facial challenges, they are categorically facial challenges given that the Court declared them unconstitutional regardless of application. Additionally, Patel contends that the Court has stated that a facial challenge would be suitable for challenging procedural protections of statutorily-provided warrantless searches, and that he is bringing such a claim against Section 41.49. Specifically, Patel claims that assessing the constitutionality of the lack of procedural protections in Section 41.49 does not require assessing the application of the ordinance to factual scenarios.


Although the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to commercial property, in New York v. Burger, the Court held that a statutorily authorized warrantless search of commercial property in a “pervasively regulated” industry satisfies the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness standard if (1) a “substantial government interest” supports the statute, (2) the search is necessary to advance the purposes of the statute, and (3) searches pursuant to the statute are a constitutionally sufficient substitute for a warrant.

Los Angeles asserts that Section 41.49 satisfies the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness standard because the hotel industry is pervasively regulated and Section 41.49 meets Burger’s other criteria. Los Angeles asserts that the hotel industry is pervasively regulated because Los Angeles hotel operators must obtain licenses from an array of agencies, comply with various state and local regulations, and have been subject to record-keeping requirements for 115 years. Furthermore, Los Angeles asserts that hotel regulation in the United States follows a tradition of regulating innkeepers, which found its roots in fourteenth-century common law and legislation.

As to Burger’s first prong, Los Angeles contends that discouraging the use of hotel rooms for illegal activity is a substantial government interest that supports Section 41.49. To satisfy Burger’s second prong, Los Angeles asserts that warrantless searches are necessary to advance the purposes of Section 41.49 because the resulting intrusion is minimal and the purpose of the statute (inspection to determine wrongdoing) is only achieved when officers are not required to announce their searches before conducting them. Third, Los Angeles argues that Section 41.49 serves as a sufficient substitute for a warrant because the ordinance requires hotel operators to maintain records and make them available to police officers for inspection, thus satisfying the purpose of notice that warrants ordinarily serve.

Patel counters, arguing in the first instance that hotels are not pervasively regulated for the purposes of analysis under Burger because the sorts of industries that fall within such regulatory schemes are those that pose atypical risks of harm to the public. Furthermore, Patel asserts that an industry is only pervasively regulated if government regulators are involved in the industry to the extent that anyone within the industry would not have any significant expectation of privacy, and that the label is therefore inapplicable to the hotel industry.

Patel contends further that even if the hotel industry is pervasively regulated, Section 41.49 does not meet Burger’s reasonableness standard. First, Patel highlights that a number of other regulators effectively enforce similar search regimes and still allow judicial review; consequently, Section 41.49’s elimination of judicial review is unnecessary. Second, Patel argues that Section 41.49 “does not limit an officer’s discretion to decide which hotels to inspect or how often to inspect them,” thus failing to provide sufficient Fourth Amendment safeguards to hotel owners. Thus, Patel concludes that because Section 41.49 lacks the requisite procedural safeguards, any search pursuant to the ordinance is unconstitutional and Section 41.49 itself violates the Fourth Amendment.


In this case, the Supreme Court must decide whether the Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.49 (“Section 41.49”), which authorizes warrantless police inspections of hotel and motel (collectively, “hotel”) guest records, violates the Fourth Amendment on its face. The City of Los Angeles (“Los Angeles”) argues that Section 41.49 is not facially unconstitutional because it is reasonable, and can be applied consistent with the Constitution. On the contrary, Patel counters that any application of Section 41.49 is unconstitutional because Section 41.49 does not require the government to obtain judicial review before conducting a search. The Supreme Court’s decision will have wide-reaching implications on the legality and scope of numerous other similar laws and ordinances throughout the country, and the privacy interests of business owners and their guests.


In support of Los Angeles, the United States and other amici argue that warrantless inspections of hotel records are critical in policing and deterring criminal activity that is increasingly common in hotel rooms. The United States explains that the easy accessibility and anonymity provided by hotels, and especially motels rented by the hour, have naturally attracted illegal activities such as human trafficking, prostitution and drug dealing. The California State Sheriffs’ Association argues that maintaining the possibility of random inspections will deter criminals from using motel rooms as part of their illegal operations. Without the authority to inspect guest records “unannounced,” the United States argues, the deterrent effect of such requirements will only be minimal because criminals can simply fabricate such information at will without facing any consequences, essentially turning motels into “havens for crime.”

Specifically, Love 146, an international human rights organization, explains that Section 41.49 takes away the anonymity of such operations by exposing essential information such as vehicle identification, payment methods, and visiting patterns, thus forcing traffickers and pimps to find alternative locations. Additionally, other amici argue that warrantless inspections will allow law enforcement officials to minimize the delay before responding to potential leads, which is critical in tracking down human trafficking operations that use cell phones and text messages to operate and relocate frequently. The State of California explains that criminal activity in motels initiate a vicious cycle, which ultimately burdens the resources and threatens the safety of the surrounding community. This is because, California explains, criminal activity in hotels demands increased resources from local police forces who are “already overburdened,” decreasing the overall safety of the community, and thus making the surrounding community less attractive to businesses and visitors. If Los Angeles’ law is held invalid, the National League of Cities argues, similar laws in fifteen other states will be in jeopardy, and the ability of law enforcement officials to deter and fight crime will be significantly undermined.


In contrast, Patel and supporting amici counter that the broad, unchecked power granted through Section 41.49 poses a substantial threat to the privacy interests of businesses and their customers alike. Patel and amicus the Cato Institute point to the limitless scope of the search and discretion allowed to police officers under Section 41.49, and argue that the police could search records at any time, for any purpose under this law. Patel asserts that guest records, by nature, contain highly personal information (such as a person’s company, whereabouts, and duration of stay) and therefore unchecked inspections of such records necessarily implicates serious privacy concerns for hotel guests. In addition, amicus Electronic Privacy Information Center argues that the electronic collection and storage of such records creates a serious risk for “financial fraud and identity theft” through potential breaches and hacking of hotel data. The Asian American Hotel Owners Association (“AAHOA”) further objects to the government’s “inflammatory and erroneous” characterization of criminal activity in hotels and the implication that hotel owners condone such activities. Specifically, AAHOA argues that the government fails to consider legitimate purposes for budget motels, such as providing affordable and flexible lodging or temporary shelter from imminent danger, which benefits “working class Americans.”

Furthermore, other amici assert that not only hotels specifically, but businesses in general also have a significant privacy interest in protecting the identity and information of its customers. The Chamber of Commerce argues that customer records, whether it is for a large or small business, “are at the core of a business’s livelihood” because such records include valuable customer data, which is analyzed and studied for various proprietary purposes. Therefore, the Chamber of Commerce argues, businesses heavily invest in the collection and protection of such data, and reasonably expect that such proprietary data will be kept private. Google warns that under Los Angeles’ justification for Section 41.49, the government, in the name of targeting criminals, could require private companies to hand over customer information without any judicial review prior to inspection.


In this case, the Supreme Court must consider whether the Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.49, which authorizes warrantless and consentless police searches on hotel and motel records containing guest information, violates the Fourth Amendment on its face. Los Angeles argues that the Fourth Amendment is not an appropriate basis for such a facial challenge, but if the Court decides it is, then Section 41.49 is constitutional because hotels are pervasively regulated, and therefore qualify as an exception to the warrant requirement for searches in order to further the compelling government interest in protecting against crime. Conversely, Patel contends that the Court may entertain facial challenges under the Fourth Amendment, and that Section 41.49 does not qualify for an exception to the warrant requirement because hotels are not pervasively regulated and there is no opportunity afforded to hotel owners for judicial review prior to the search. The Court’s ruling in this case will affect similar laws in other jurisdictions and industries, the privacy interests of guests staying at hotels and motels, and the ability of law enforcement to deter crime.

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