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Can Law Enforcement Inspect Your Guest Register Without a Search Warrant?

Oregon Lodging Association’s "Lodging News"- January 2007

What should you do when Officer Jones shows up at the front desk of your hotel asking to see your guest register to assist in her investigation of illegal drug use? This is an issue that causes concern in the lodging industry which has historically attempted to be protective of guest privacy for a variety of reasons. This article will answer the question, to the extent possible, as to whether law enforcement can inspect your guest register without a search warrant.

First of all, we would always recommend that an innkeeper request law enforcement to produce a search warrant prior to turning over the guest register whenever possible. It is also reasonable to require law enforcement to produce identification and to inquire as to the specific basis for the search. If unsatisfied with the explanation, you can request additional information; however, in most circumstances, legitimate law enforcement activity will not place you in this position. By acting in this manner, your exposure to civil claims for invasion of privacy under these circumstances will be minimized.

Of course, it is quite common for law enforcement to request inspection of a guest register without a warrant. Generally, the legal standard applicable to information provided by a guest in the guest register is whether the guest has a "reasonable expectation of privacy" with regards to that information. If so, the guest may have certain defenses to criminal law enforcement action under the search and seizure provisions of the United States and Oregon Constitutions. The guest may also be able to assert civil claims against a lodging facility that discloses such information without proper authority. If the guest does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in this information, then the innkeeper has greater latitude to disclose this information to law enforcement.

Federal law on this issue in the Ninth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Oregon for purposes of federal law, is well settled. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that guests do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in guest registration records. In United States v. Cormier, a police officer in Seattle went to a hotel and requested the hotel’s guest register without a warrant. After receiving the information, the officer looked up the names of individuals listed in the register, found an outstanding warrant, and arrested the guest. The guest claimed that he had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in the information and therefore his Constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated. The Court rejected this argument.

The facts in Cormier are instructive in that a random search by police of a guest register without a warrant was upheld under federal law. Unfortunately, we do not have such a clear pronouncement under Oregon law; however, we do have some guidance. In the case of State v. Johnson, a Portland police officer conducted a random inquiry of a guest register at a Portland hotel. The officer’s practice was to stop at local hotels to ask the clerks if they had observed any suspicious activity that might be related to drug transactions. A clerk at a hotel informed the officer of some suspicious activity in a certain room. The officer then looked up the guest’s information in the guest register, ran a search on the listed occupant, and arrested the occupant on charges of methamphetamine use. While the case does not address the propriety of the officer’s conduct in obtaining guest register information without a search warrant, the Court did recognize the guest’s reasonable expectation of privacy in her hotel room. Therefore, you should not be going around opening rooms for law enforcement without a valid search warrant expressly authorizing the search. However, the Court’s opinion in Johnson failed to raise any concerns with the conduct of the police officer in doing random searches of hotel guest registers. While we cannot read too much into this omission given the manner in which court cases are decided, it appears that under both federal and Oregon law, warrantless searches of guest registers are allowed.

Please understand that the specific facts and circumstances of law enforcement inquiries may vary widely. Therefore, the information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice and does not give rise to an attorney-client relationship.