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Supreme Court Protects Privacy for Hotel, Airbnb Guests

The Los Angeles Police Department has lost its bid to demand lodging information after practice is declared unconstitutional.

On June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court handed privacy rights activists a major win by ruling it unconstitutional for police to demand guest information from hotels and lodging providers like Airbnb without a warrant.

The 5-4 decision dismisses a Los Angeles municipal code statute that requires lodging providers to immediately turn over private guest information. Under penalty of arrest, the city code demanded lodging providers give police on-demand access to guest’s names, home addresses, room numbers, payment information, identification and license plate numbers. Under the code, law enforcement did not need to provide a reason for the request and hotels had to keep data for 90 days.

The decision is likely to have an impact on sharing economy lodging sites like Airbnb. According to a release from Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit consumer rights advocacy group, Santa Monica, Calif., has already passed legislation demanding similar guest data from home-sharing hosts, and San Francisco is considering similar legislation supported by Supervisors David Campos, Eric Mar and John Avalos.

Grappling with home sharing is not new for San Francisco, where in 2014 officials passed a law  requiring each host to hold at least $500,000 in liability insurance, pay hotel taxes, comply with housing codes, be listed in a registry and report the number of rented days annually.

The court’s decision to uphold a ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Los Angeles v. Patel may prompt a reversal on such regulatory restrictions and pending legislation.

Siding with hotel owners who sued Los Angeles in 2003, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that before hotel operators were compelled by the law, they had a right to object seizures in front of a judge.

“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,” Sotomayor said.

In its argument, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office had defended its stance, saying the law enabled police to halt sex trafficking and narcotics sales. Justices supporting the L.A. ordinance argued that obtaining warrants for guest information were prone to be impractical and costly in large cities like Los Angeles.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.