Privacy, Data Protection and Retention
Google Spain SL v. Agencia Española de Protección de Datos
Closed Expands Expression
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The City of Los Angeles had a municipal law requiring hotels in the city to keep records of their guests for 90 days. The police could request access to these records without a warrant, and hotel operators could be charged with a criminal misdemeanor for refusing or failing to turn over these records. The Supreme Court noted the absence of “precompliance review,” especially given the penalty for not complying, and held that the law was unconstitutional for allowing searches in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Per the city’s municipal code, hotels in Los Angeles were required to keep records about their guests and retain this information for 90 days. The code required that hotel operators keep records of various information including “the guest’s name and address; the number of people in each guest’s party; the make, model, and license plate number of any guest’s vehicle parked on hotel property; the guest’s date and time of arrival and scheduled departure date; the room number assigned to the guest; the rate charged and amount collected for the room; and the method of payment.” The Los Angeles police were permitted to request that hotels produce these records, and a hotel operator could be charged with a criminal misdemeanor for failing to hand over these records immediately. A lodging association and a collection of motel operators brought a consolidated case challenging the code section on the basis that it violated the Fourth Amendment.
The District Court held that the plaintiffs “lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the records subject to inspection.” The Ninth Circuit reversed this decision and held that this unreasonable search of the hotels’ records violated the Fourth Amendment because of the possible punishment for failure to comply with a police request.
 slip op. at 2.
 slip op. at 3.
Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. After first determining that the plaintiffs could challenge statutes on their face, the Court considered whether the requirements of the Los Angeles municipal code and the punishment for not meeting those requirements were constitutional.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from an invasion of their privacy without a warrant, which can only be issued after a showing of probable cause unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. The privacy extends to commercial locations in addition to private homes.
The Court considered if the record demands pursuant to the law were “administrative searches,” which are an exception to the warrant requirement. Previously, the Court held that without exigent circumstances, consent, or a subpoena, an administrative search subject must be given “an opportunity to obtain precompliance review before a neutral decisionmaker.” The city never claimed to provide the hotel operators this time for review, given that operators denying the police access to the records could be arrested immediately. The absence of “precompliance review” created an opportunity for searches beyond the statutory limits or an avenue for harassing hotel guests or operators. The Court did not require actual review of the search demand but for rare circumstances. The Court’s only requirement was that hotel operators have “an opportunity to have a neutral decisionmaker review an officer’s demand to search the registry before he or she faces penalties for failing to comply.”
As the Court acknowledged, the plaintiffs did not challenge the requirement that they keep these records at all, and, therefore, the Court did not address this issue. However, the Court considered arguments from both the City and Justice Scalia that the search was one of a business — and therefore having a more relaxed standard for the government to meet — with four specific industries having “no reasonable expectation of privacy” and facing searches on a regular basis. The Court, however, did not find hotels to be among those industries that have historically faced stringent government oversight. Even if hotels were found to be heavily regulated by the government, the Court found the hotel searches in this case would not pass the three-prong test to qualify as reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
The City argued that allowing a hotel a chance for precompliance review would create an opportunity for the hotel operators to falsify these records, but the Court rejected this argument as it has done in the past. The Court also reiterated that its decision does not preclude a police officer from procuring an ex parte warrant and performing a surprise inspection if the officer is concerned about the records being altered; though the Court speculated that this type of procedure will probably be unnecessary for the majority of the 2000 hotels in Los Angeles. Therefore, the Court affirmed the decision of the Ninth Circuit, which held that the law provided for unreasonable searches of the hotels’ records, and thus violated the Fourth Amendment.
Scalia and Alito, JJ., wrote separate dissenting opinions.
 slip op. at 10.
 slip op. at 11.
 slip op. at 14 (quoting U.S., Marshall v. Barlow’s, Inc., 436 U.S. 307 (1978)).
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The case expanded expression by protecting hotels’ information on guests from search by law enforcement absent precompliance review.
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