Los Angeles Municipal Code §41.49 required hotel operators to record and keep specific information about their guests on the premises for 90 days. Section 41.49 also provided that these records “shall be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection . . . at a time and in a manner that minimizes any interference with the operation of the business.” A hotel operator’s failure to make records available to an officer upon demand was a criminal misdemeanor. Patel, a motel owner in Los Angeles, sued the city, asking the court to prevent the continued enforcement of §41.49’s warrantless inspection provision. Patel argued that as written, or on its face, §41.49 violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Whether §41.49 was unconstitutional on its face, because it did not expressly provide for pre-compliance judicial review before police officers could inspect a motel’s registry.
Yes. The subject of the inspection must be given an opportunity to obtain pre-compliance review regarding the lawfulness of the search.
First, the United States Supreme Court held that Patel was entitled to challenge the constitutionality of §41.49 on its face, or without first having alleged that his hotel was subjected to an unconstitutional search under §41.49.
The court further held that the provision of §41.49 that required hotel operators to make their registries available to the police upon demand was unconstitutional because it penalized the hotel operators for declining to turn over their records without affording them any opportunity for a pre-compliance review.
The court reiterated the well-settled rule that warrantless searches of homes or commercial premises are per se unreasonable, unless they fall within one of the few established exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
One of these exceptions provides for warrantless administrative searches. The primary purpose of an administrative search is to ensure compliance with some type of governmental record keeping, health or safety requirement, and not for the discovery of criminal evidence. Under such circumstances, the court recognized the Fourth Amendment’s warrant and probable cause requirements were not practical; therefore, it was reasonable to allow warrantless administrative searches. However, the court held for an administrative search to be constitutional, the subject of the search must be afforded an opportunity to obtain pre-compliance review of the lawfulness of the search before a neutral decision maker.
Without deciding the exact form an opportunity for pre-compliance review must take, the court indicated that an administrative subpoena would be sufficient in most cases. For example, in this case, if a subpoenaed hotel operator believed that an attempted search of his records was unlawful, he could request an administrative law judge quash the subpoena before he suffered any criminal penalties for failure to comply with the subpoena. Conversely, if an officer reasonably suspected a hotel operator might tamper with the requested records while the motion before the judge is pending, the officer would be able to guard the records until the required hearing occurred. Finally, the court stressed that its holding had no bearing on cases where exigent circumstances would allow a warrantless records search or where the record owners consented to the search.
576 U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 2443 (2015)