City of Los Angeles v. Patel: The Upcoming Supreme Court Case No One is Talking About
32 Pages Posted: 29 Dec 2014 Last revised: 18 Jul 2015
Date Written: December 27, 2014
Focusing solely on whether a hotel owner has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a guest registry is akin to asking whether Verizon Wireless has a reasonable expectation of privacy in its customer lists. The answer to those questions should be yes, but the sixty-four thousand dollar question — and the proverbial elephant in the room — is whether hotel occupants and cell phone users forfeit their privacy rights simply because they check into the Beverly Hills Hotel or call their significant others from a Smart Phone on the Santa Monica Freeway. Put differently, a hotel owner’s expectation of privacy in a guest registry is the tip of the iceberg. The hotel guests’ privacy rights — just like the cell phone user’s and the internet subscriber’s — is where the rubber meets the constitutional road.
The issue lurking in the background of City of Los Angeles v. Patel — and in the back of most citizens’ minds — transcends hotel owners, highly regulated industries, and Holiday Inns. It is about whether the third-party doctrine, which was created during the disco era when rotary telephones were in vogue, adequately protects privacy rights in the digital era. The answer to this question should be no. If the answer to this question is yes, and the third-party doctrine remains intact in its current form, then law enforcement officers from the Los Angeles Police Department will be able to march into the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel without a warrant — or any suspicion whatsoever — and know if a Supreme Court Justice is staying in the Sunset Suite.
Law enforcement will also be able to know the make, model, and license plate number of the Justice’s vehicle, the length of time the Justice has been staying there (including the Justice’s departure date), the Justice’s room number, and how many people are in the Justice’s room. Incredibly, the hotel owner must provide all of this information to law enforcement officers regardless of whether the officers have probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or even a hunch that criminal activity is afoot. All of this happens without any judicial oversight whatsoever.
It gets worse.
If the hotel operator at the Beverly Hills Hotel refuses law enforcement’s demand, he or she may spend the night in the Los Angeles County Jail awaiting a trial on charges that can result in six months’ imprisonment and a stiff fine. Something is very wrong — and unreasonable — with this picture. And reasonableness is the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment.
Keywords: City of Los Angeles v. Patel, Fourth Amendment, Riley v. California, third-party doctrine, NSA metadata collection, Smith v. Maryland
JEL Classification: K14, K23, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation