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LAPD Can't Search Motel Registries Without A Warrant, US Supreme Court Says

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Hotels and motels will still keep guest registries (Photo by J.D.S via Shutterstock)
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The U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 yesterday to strike down a Los Angeles ordinance that allowed police to look at hotel and motel guest registries at any time.Motels and hotels in most cities are required to maintain a guest registry and Los Angeles is no exception, the L.A. Times reports. Motel owners must take down each customer's name, address, the make and model of their car and other information upon check-in. It was not keeping the registry that a group of motel owners objected to in a suit against the City of Los Angeles, but rather the second part of that ordinance: that police could demand to see the registry at any time, even late at night. Impromptu checks at all hours, the motel owners argued, was disruptive for the families that operate them. Not only that, but refusal to provide the registry could result in a $1,000 fine or six months in jail for the motel owner.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this ordinance was unconstitutional. In particular, the it violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, because motel owners were not allowed to challenge officers' requests without facing a penalty. To fix this, motel owners would need to be able to go before a neutral party, like a judge, who would decide whether the request to see the registry was reasonable—in other words, they should just get a warrant. Justice Sonia Sotomayor also said that the ordinance did not protect motel owners and guests from being harassed by officers.

"Even if a hotel has been searched 10 times a day, every day, for three months, without any violation being found, the operator can only refuse to comply with an officer's demand to turn over the registry at his or her own peril," Sotomayor wrote. Some motel owners, many of whom are Indian American, claimed that the LAPD was targeting and harassing them unnecessarily, according to India West.

Even though the second part of the ordinance has been struck down, motel and hotel operators will still be required to keep a registry, and motel owners may still choose to allow police to search registries without a warrant. Police can also still conduct surprise searches of hotels and motels if they get a warrant first.

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The L.A. City Attorney's Office argued that being able to check the registries allows them to better combat crimes that often occurs in hotels and motels, like drug deals, sex trafficking or prostitution. Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed with the majority opinion, saying that allowing officers to check registries curtails crimes and discourages those looking to commit illicit activity from doing so in motels. Scalia also wrote: "The private pain and public costs imposed by drug dealing, prostitution, and human trafficking are beyond contention, and motels provide an obvious haven for those who trade in human misery."