By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

In a 5-4 decision in the case of Los Angeles v Patel et al, the US Supreme Court ruled that Section 41.49(3)(a) of the Los Angeles Municipal Code that permits police to check guest registries at motels and hotels without a warrant is unconstitutional because it violates the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The win amounts to a victory for America's motel owners, about half of whom are Indian American, of which 70 percent are Gujarati.

The ordinance required hotel operators to record and keep information about guests’ names, addresses, vehicles, and more for 90 days, and make it available to the police without a warrant at any time of day or night. There are similar ordinances in over a hundred cities across the country.

Although all hotels are subject to the law, it tended to be enforced only against motels in lower income areas, and often in the middle of the night. According to India West, a group of motel owners brought the case in 2003 after a series of incidents with the Los Angeles police in which hotel employees were harassed, intimidated, and arrested for clerical mistakes and English errors.

“No hotel owner wants to see human trafficking or crime on his premises,” Ray Patel, president of the North East Los Angeles Hotel Owners Association (NELAHOA), told India West. “But the tactics used by the LAPD were not preventing crimes.”

Police argued that this law was necessary to fight prostitution, human trafficking, and drug sales.

"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," wrote Justice Sotomayor in the decision. Requiring a warrant, on the other hand, “reduces the risk that officers will use these administrative searches as a pretext to harass business owners."

Because hotel registries today keep sensitive information such as driver’s license numbers and credit card information, this ruling against administrative searches is being hailed as a win for privacy rights.