COAST CITIES — Solana Beach passed an ordinance this past June that allowed the Sheriff’s Department to inspect hotel guest books without a warrant. A week later, Encinitas gave its initial approval for a similar law.
Yet two weeks ago, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the registry law, which cities across the state had passed to aid police investigations. By a 7-4 vote, the judges on the appeals court said two Los Angeles hotel owners had a constitutional right to keep their guests’ records private.
Beginning last June, the Sheriff’s Department had guaranteed access to hotel logs in Solana Beach, but that’s no longer the case with the court’s decision, said Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Haley.
“It limits what we can do, but it’s nothing earth-shattering,” Haley said. “We have other means of tracking down criminals.”
Haley said that a significant number of criminals are from outside the area and rely on nearby hotels to hide out. Perusing the hotel registries made it easier for Sheriff’s detectives to hunt known suspects in Solana Beach.
He added that the ordinance helped the Sheriff’s Department develop fresh leads.
After a crime spree, detectives checked if hotel logs had people who were on parole or probation for a similar crime and followed up with them, Haley said.
“Hopefully the ruling gets appealed to a higher court,” Haley said.
The law required hotels and motels to keep records of guests’ names, when they arrived and a copy of official identification for them, among other information. Before the recent ruling, the data was to be stored for three years.
The Encinitas City Council supported the ordinance in June.
In a staff report for the topic, the Sheriff’s Department argued the ordinance is necessary, because obtaining a warrant to view guest books can take days, rendering fresh leads outdated.
During a subsequent meeting in July, the council agreed to table the measure instead of formally adopt it. At that time, Encinitas Councilman Tony Kranz said the city should seek more voluntary compliance among hotel owners before moving forward with the ordinance. That way, the city would avoid potential legal issues.
Despite the ruling, Sheriff’s Sgt. Emory Wallace noted hotels can still voluntarily hand over their registries — they just can’t be compelled to do so. “Many are cooperative,” Wallace said.
In June, Solana Beach City Councilman Peter Zahn cast the lone vote against the law, noting reservations related to privacy. He did not respond to an email requesting an interview for the article.
Writing for the majority on the U.S. appeal court, Judge Paul Watford said: “The hotel’s property and privacy interests are more than sufficient to trigger Fourth Amendment protection.” The ruling later states: “Such inspections involve both a physical intrusion upon the hotel’s private paper and an invasion of the hotel’s protected privacy interest.”
But Judge Richard Tallman, on behalf of the dissenting judges, said the hotel owners failed to demonstrate a legitimate expectation of privacy.
“We cannot simply assume that hotels in general expect information contained in their guest registers to be private,” Tallman said. “Under the ordinance, a guest registry may be a publicly accessible book in a publicly accessible hotel lobby,” Tallman added. “Society likely does not recognize a legitimate expectation of privacy in information kept in a manner so easily accessible to anyone entering a hotel.”