The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in a challenge brought by hotel owners against a Los Angeles city ordinance that allows police to access guest registers without consent, warrant, or other legal process. Supporting the hotel owners, EFF argues that people must have the right to challenge surveillance laws like these on Fourth Amendment grounds, even before police have used the law to conduct a suspicionless search.
“In an era of pervasive surveillance, the ability to challenge overbroad laws that invade privacy is more important than ever,” Senior Staff Attorney and Adams Chair for Internet Rights Lee Tien said.
Central to City of Los Angeles v. Patel is a city ordinance requiring hotel operators to retain certain guest registry information, which they must make available to police officers on demand. Hotel operators aren’t allowed to challenge requests for guest information in court in advance and can be punished with a jail or fine if they refuse to comply.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the ordinance violates the Fourth Amendment: individuals subject to an “administrative search”—a kind of warrantless, suspicionless search that may be performed for reasons unrelated to criminal investigations—must be allowed to object in court before they can be punished for resisting the requests. However, a dissenting opinion argued that not only does the Los Angeles ordinance satisfy the Fourth Amendment, but the Constitution does not allow the hotel owners to challenge the law until the government actually uses the law to conduct a warrantless search against them.
EFF’s brief addresses the latter question, arguing that the Fourth Amendment must allow “facial” challenges to laws that authorize warrantless searches.
“There are many reasons why this is the right rule,” EFF Legal Fellow Andrew Crocker said. “Facial challenges preserve individuals’ constitutional rights and they guard against laws that would chill individuals’ protected Fourth Amendment activity.”
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Patel on March 3, 2015. A recording of the argument should be available shortly after that.
For EFF’s brief: https://www.eff.org/document/eff-amicus-los-angeles-v-patel
For more information on the case: https://www.eff.org/cases/city-los-angeles-v-patel