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Justices Rule Police Must Obtain Warrant to Search Hotel or Motel Registries

June 23, 2015 | National News

By ADAM LIPTAK | NEW YORK TIMES

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Los Angeles ordinance that allowed the police to inspect hotel and motel guest registries without permission from a judge. In a second decision, the court clarified the standards for excessive force claims against corrections officers from people awaiting trial.

Both cases were decided by 5-to-4 votes, with the court’s more liberal members in the majority.

The case concerning hotel registries is likely to have a broad impact, as dozens of cities allow warrantless searches, which law enforcement officials say help them catch fugitives and fight prostitution and drug dealing.

A group of motel owners challenged the Los Angeles law. They said they were not troubled by its requirement that they keep records about their guests. But they objected to a second part of the ordinance, which allowed the police to look at the registries at any time without the owners’ consent or a search warrant.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, said most owners were not likely to object. But those who do, she said, must be given the opportunity to make their case to a “neutral decision maker” before they are forced to turn over the records or risk arrest.

“Absent an opportunity for precompliance review,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, “the ordinance creates an intolerable risk that searches authorized by it will exceed statutory limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests. Even if a hotel has been searched 10 times a day, every day, for three months, without any violation being found, the operator can only refuse to comply with an officer’s demand to turn over the registry at his or her own peril.”

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.

If a police officer fears the owner will tamper with the records while a judge considers the matter, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “he or she can guard the registry until the required hearing can occur, which ought not take long.”

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called that approach “equal parts 1984 and Alice in Wonderland.”

He added that the majority had struck a needless blow against a valuable and barely intrusive practice.

“Motels not only provide housing to vulnerable transient populations, they are also a particularly attractive site for criminal activity ranging from drug dealing and prostitution to human trafficking,” he wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas. “Offering privacy and anonymity on the cheap, they have been employed as prisons for migrants smuggled across the border and held for ransom and rendezvous sites where child sex workers meet.”

Given that, Justice Scalia wrote, “the limited warrantless searches authorized by Los Angeles’s ordinance are reasonable under the circumstances.” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. filed a separate dissent in the case, Los Angeles v. Patel, No. 13-1175.

The excessive-force case, Kingsley v. Hendrickson, No. 14-6368, concerned a lawsuit against Wisconsin jail officials who used a stun gun on a detainee after he was handcuffed and taken from his cell for refusing to remove a piece of paper covering a light fixture in his cell.

The detainee, Michael B. Kingsley, was awaiting trial on a drug charge.

The question for the justices was whether Mr. Kingsley had to prove that the officials subjectively believed that they had crossed a line in using too much force or that, as Justice Breyer put it for the majority, “a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable.”

The second showing was enough, Justice Breyer wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan.

The standard should not be applied mechanically, Justice Breyer cautioned. “A court must make this determination from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, including what the officer knew at the time,” he wrote, “not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts.

Justice Scalia said the majority’s approach was flawed.

“It is illogical,” he wrote, “automatically to infer punitive intent from the fact that a prison guard used more force against a pretrial detainee than was necessary. That could easily have been the result of a misjudgment about the degree of force required to maintain order or protect other inmates.”

“An officer’s decision regarding how much force to use,” Justice Scalia wrote, quoting an earlier decision, “is made ‘in haste, under pressure and frequently without the luxury of a second chance.’” Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas joined Justice Scalia’s dissent. In a separate dissent, Justice Alito said he would have dismissed the case and awaited another that presented the central questions more directly.