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The police know when you check in to a hotel, motel, or Holiday Inn. Or, at least sometimes they do.
A Motel 6 in Rhode Island has agreed to turn over daily guest lists to the police. This is one of many steps the motel chain is taking to curb the number of criminal incidents occurring at the hotel. The hotel does not directly alert guests during check-in that their names will be turned over to the police.
Is that legal? Don't hotel guests have a right to privacy?
The United States has privacy laws that prohibit the disclosure of medical information or regulate the collection of financial information and personal information of children. However, there are no federal laws directly addressing the disclosure of guests' information for hotels.
Some states and cities, like Massachusetts and Los Angeles, California, have laws that require hotels to give guest lists to the police without a warrant.
Hotels have challenged these laws as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable warrantless searches and seizures where they have a legitimate expectation of privacy. Courts have disagreed on how this applies to hotel guest lists.
In Commonwealth v. Blinn, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld Massachusetts' law requiring hotels and motels to produce guest lists when requested by law enforcement without a warrant. The court cited Dow Chemical Co. v. United States, where the United States Supreme Court found that government "has 'greater latitude to conduct warrantless inspections of commercial property' because 'the expectation of privacy that the owner of commercial property enjoys in such property differs significantly from the sanctity accorded an individual's home." The court decided that the warrantless search of the motel register did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the motel had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the motel's guest register.
Meanwhile in California, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled, in the case of City of Los Angeles v. Patel, that a similar L.A. city ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment because hotel records are private papers. Police would need a warrant to search those records.
That case is currently on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court heard oral arguments on March 3, 2015 but has yet to issue a decision.
Until the Supreme Court decides one way or another, warrantless searches of hotel records are currently legal in some jurisdictions and illegal in others. So, watch your step in Rhode Island.
Update: On May 1, the Warwick, R.I. police stated they will no longer be accepting guests lists from Motel 6.