While it’s important for hoteliers to cooperate with lawful requests from law enforcement agencies, an attorney at the recent Hospitality Law Conference explained why they need to be careful when it comes to requests for guests’ information.
HOUSTON—When police come to a hotel looking for guest information without a warrant, front-desk employees and GMs who feel intimidated or who don’t understand the law are likely to comply.
In 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case City of Los Angeles v. Patel, the justices decided 5-4 that the Los Angeles law that required hoteliers to turn over any requested guest information to police on request, even without a warrant, violated the Fourth Amendment, said Charles Spitz, co-chair of Post & Schell’s Hospitality & Retail Practice Group, at the 2019 Hospitality Law Conference.
“It was seen as a huge victory for privacy rights,” he said.
Following this decision, hotels generally can’t give up guest information without a warrant, he said. What happens, though, if a front-desk clerk doesn’t know about this decision and shares the information with police?
“Now you’re in trouble,” he said.
Citing the 2017 situation in which employees at six Motel 6 locations voluntarily handed over guest information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who were looking for guests with “Latino-sounding names,” Spitz said the employees even allowed ICE agents to use the hotels’ back of house to interview, arrest and detain guests at the hotel. As a result, some guests were deported, he said.
“Since these guests had some expectation to privacy with respect to the information they gave at check-in, this was a big problem for Motel 6 and quickly spiraled into a PR nightmare for them,” he said.
While the Motel 6 brand issued a statement that from that point forward it wouldn’t release any guest information to law enforcement unless legally compelled to, the damage was done in terms of public reputation and civil liability, Spitz said. Eight Latino plaintiffs filed action against Motel 6 and received a settlement for $7.6 million in late 2018. The state of Washington brought action against Motel 6 as well, and the brand settled with the state for $12 million, he said.
“This is obviously a problem,” he said. “This case underscores what can happen if you don’t interact with law enforcement correctly and you give up information you shouldn’t give up.”
What hoteliers should do
Companies need to be aware of the ordinances that apply to their hotels, and they need to make policies that are tailored to those ordinances, Spitz said. They should designate a specific person for responding to any request from law enforcement, and that person should have to call the property’s GM or inside or outside legal counsel to find out whether to comply or deny a request, he said.
The hotel front-desk staff are on the front line for handling law enforcement requests, Spitz said, and they need the proper training so the hotel doesn’t get into legal trouble.
“The policy should be ingrained in the training that is provided not only to your security staff but your front-office staff from day one,” he said. “The minute when they come in for their orientation, when they’re getting all the other training done, hammer them on this. When the cops come, we’re going to cooperate with them, but we have to make sure that certain safeguards are followed so your property doesn’t end up with a PR nightmare that obviously Motel 6 ended up with.”
It’s not rocket science, Spitz said. The policy needs to be in place so that when a hotel receives a request, the staff can follow some chain of command to approve the request.
The Supreme Court decision said that if a warrant isn’t available, the police can fill out an administrative warrant that’s not signed by a judge, he said. Cops should know in this day and age they need to come to a hotel with the necessary papers, and requiring it shouldn’t ruin any relationship with the local police department, which is an important relationship to have, he said.
Hoteliers should know there are some exigent circumstances that wouldn’t require the police to come with a warrant, Spitz said. Generally speaking, if there’s a kidnapping and the victim is in a room with the kidnapper, the hotelier can let the police into the room, he said. If someone saw a person being dragged into a guestroom and sounds of violence are audible through the door, that’s another circumstance in which it would be OK to open the door, he said.