supreme court case

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In a 5-4 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court held in United States v. Patel that hotel owners cannot be required to turn over their registries to law enforcement without some kind of judicial review.  The case centered on a Los Angeles municipal code provision that required all hotels to keep a registry with information about there guests and to turn the information over to law enforcement upon request.  Law enforcement officers did not need to make any kind of showing of need before making the request, nor did the officers need to get judicial approval.  A hotel owner sued the United States government, mounting a facial challenge to the ordinance on the grounds that it allowed for a suspicionless search that violated its rights.  Five Justices agreed.

There are three interesting aspects to this opinion:

First, eight of the Justices held that plaintiffs can bring facial challenges under the Fourth Amendment.  In my preview of this case, I predicted that the Supreme Court would not allow facial challenges because it would open the door to too many hypothetical cases.  This prediction proved to be completely incorrect.  The Court noted that it allowed facial challenges in many other contexts, and that there was no reason to prohibit them in the Fourth Amendment context.  The Court also noted that a facial challenge to a statute can succeed even if there were some situations in which the search would be authorized by some authority other than the challenged statute:

Similarly, when addressing a facial challenge to a statute authorizing warrantless searches, the proper focus of the constitutional inquiry is searches that the law actually authorizes, not those for which it is irrelevant. If exigency or a warrant justifies an officer’s search, the subject of the search must permit it to proceed irrespective of whether it is authorized by statute. Statutes authorizing warrantless searches also do no work where the subject of a search has consented. Accordingly, the constitutional “applications” that petitioner claims prevent facial relief here are irrelevant to our analysis because they do not involve actual applications of the statute.

Second, this holding will have an important effect on the development of the third party doctrine in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.  Under the third party doctrine, an individual gives up all of his or her Fourth Amendment rights in an item or a piece of information if he or she hands it over to a third party.  That third party is free to give it to law enforcement, and the original owner of the item or document has no right to object.  Patel does not change any of that.  However, what if the third party–the hotel, the bank, or the internet service provider–does not want to turn the information over to law enforcement upon request?  Before Patel, the third party’s rights to object were relatively fuzzy, but Patel set out clear standards: the government must get some kind of “precompliance review” of its request before the third party can be forced to turn over the information.  This means either an administrative warrant (which is issued by a judge) or–if the government obtained a subpoena and the third party challenged the subpoena–a review of the subpoena by a judge or magistrate.  Granted, the standard for obtaining an administrative warrant or defending a subpoena is relatively low, but the requirement of precompliance review by a neutral judicial official is still a significant one.

Of course, none of this matters if the third party decides to cooperate with law enforcement–as has happened very frequently in the past.  But in the wake of the Snowden revelations and the public outcry that followed, more and more companies are beginning to assert their rights to keep this information from the government–both because the information has intrinsic value to them and because their customers are demanding more privacy.  Some companies, like Google, are challenging subpoenas more and more often.  Thus, for scholars and judges who complain about the third party doctrine, this may perhaps provide some solace–we still may not have the right to protect our information, but the companies we give it to are developing both the incentives and the legal ability to protect it for us.

The final aspect of the holding is one that flew a little bit under the radar, but that nevertheless is important.  The Patel Court assumed, without deciding, that a government search of the hotel’s registry qualified as a special needs search rather than a traditional law enforcement search.  The Court essentially said that there was no need to get into this question into more depth, because even under the lower “special needs” standard, the ordinance was unconstitutional, so it would clearly be unconstitutional under the more stringent law enforcement standard (which requires probable cause and–usually–a warrant).  But the very fact that the Court was willing to even make this assumption for argument’s sake is a bit troubling, and may presage yet another broadening of the already overbroad special needs definition.

Of course, the “special needs” justification has already been broadened way beyond the health and safety inspections of Camera and has been applied to searches which do little more than deter crime.  For example, as I discussed in an earlier article, almost every circuit court has held that the searches at airports are legitimate under the “special needs” doctrine, under the theory that they prevent terrorist action and thus protect public safety.  (The Supreme Court has yet to consider airport searches, but the Court has approved of them in dicta).   So already we have prevention of violent crime as a special need in order to keep society safe.  Likewise, the Supreme Court has approved of drunk driving checkpoints as a special need which keeps other motorists safe by preventing drivers from committing the crime of driving while intoxicated–which in a sense is per se reckless activity.

So we already apply the special needs search doctrine in order to prevent violent or reckless crimes–but at least those applications have some connection to protecting public safety.  Applying the special needs search doctrine to prevent drug use or prostitution in hotel rooms seems to be yet another step–a significant one–towards blurring the line between special needs searches and plain old fashioned law enforcement searches.  This was a line, for example, that the Court was unwilling to cross in Indianapolis v. Edmond.

To be fair, footnote 2 of Patel makes it clear that the Court is not making a decision one way or another on this particular issue.  So perhaps the Court simply wanted to make a broader point about the requirements for special needs searches and so decided to use Patel–even though in the end the search in question might not be an administrative search.  But this nuance may get lost as the months and the years go by, and many lawyers and judges will begin to think of Patel as the “administrative search case” and thus will think of the police accessing hotel records as a special needs administrative search.  Hopefully the Court can clarify this issue before that point.