The Motel 6 case is the latest chapter of a history of interaction between hotel operators and law enforcement agencies, in which the former have been challenged to balance competing priorities of cooperating with the latter to protect public safety, while also protecting guests’ privacy.
On 3 January, Washington State Attorney General Robert Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Motel 6, alleging that the company violated state law by regularly providing hotel guests’ personally identifiable information to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement without ICE having obtained search warrants.
The state’s complaint alleges that since 2015, Motel 6 has “employed a corporate policy and practice of providing guest registry information, including the guests’ personal identifying information, upon request to agents of (ICE).” The state alleges, “ICE’s usual practice was to come to Motel 6’s reception desk and request the guest list from the receptionist. The receptionist would print out the guest list and give it to the ICE agent.” The complaint further alleges, “Motel 6 trained its new employees to follow (this) practice without requiring agents to show any … search warrant.” According to the state, “Motel 6 was aware that the ICE agents used the guest registry information to identify and single out guests based on national origin, including guests with Latino-sounding names. ICE would then determine if any of the guests it identified were wanted by ICE. … On a number of occasions, ICE agents arrested or otherwise detained guests after reviewing Motel 6’s guest registry information.”
Ferguson’s office began its investigation of Motel 6 last September, after a report of similar incidents involving ICE at two corporate-owned Motel 6 hotels in Arizona. In response to those incidents, Motel 6 issued a statement that these actions were “undertaken at the local level without the knowledge of senior management.” Ferguson doubts this. His initial investigation allegedly uncovered not only the conduct discussed above at six Motel 6-owned hotels in Washington, but also evidence that Ferguson believes shows that a policy was developed above property for Motel 6 hotels to provide guest information to ICE without warrants. “We’re going to find out who at Motel 6 knew what, and when they knew it,” he said. Ferguson did acknowledge that his office is not aware of Motel 6 having disclosed any guest information to ICE agents after the company’s response last September to the incidents in Arizona.
As of this writing, Motel 6 has not filed any responsive pleading or made any public statement in response to the lawsuit.
The Motel 6 case calls to mind a recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving police inspection of hotel guest registries, Los Angeles v. Patel, 135 S.Ct. 2443 (2015). In this case, the court invalidated an LA city ordinance that had required any hotel in that city, upon demand by a police officer (and without a warrant), to produce a copy of the hotel’s guest registry. However, the Supreme Court added that “hotel operators remain free to (voluntarily) consent to searches of their registries” and recognized that hotel operators “often do” so. The Supreme Court even anticipated that there would be only “rare instances where a hotel operator objects to turning over (a guest) registry” and independent review of a warrant application (or its equivalent) becomes necessary.
The State of Washington’s complaint against Motel 6 does not allege that ICE ordered hotels to turn over guest registries. It says that ICE’s usual practice was to “request” them. Assistant Attorney General Colleen Melody explained how her office believes a hotel in this situation should respond: “If Motel 6 wants to comply with the law, it should require ICE to bring a warrant when it seeks guest information, and that’s the way this process is supposed to work.” This creates an unusual form of government scrutiny: a state agency challenging a hotel management company for cooperating with a federal agency in exactly the way the latter requests.
The Motel 6 case is the latest chapter of a history of interaction between hotel operators and law enforcement agencies, in which the former have been challenged to balance competing priorities of cooperating with the latter to protect public safety, while also protecting guests’ privacy. The following are some practical guidelines that hotel managers should follow to balance these priorities:
- Unless special circumstances apply (see below), if any law enforcement office (federal, state or municipal) asks to see any registry of a current or previous guests, or any guestroom portfolio or other record of a guest’s stay, do not produce the registry or record unless and until the office produces a search warrant or subpoena.
- If the officer produces a warrant or subpoena, make a copy of that document and provide the officer copies of whatever documents are described in the warrant or subpoena. Keep copies of the documents provided to the officer.
- If the officer has a warrant to search a guestroom, allow the officer to search the guestroom and obtain a copy of the warrant.
- If the officer has an arrest warrant for one or more guests, inform the officer of the guestroom number(s) of the individual(s) whose name(s) appear on the warrant, and step aside. Obtain a copy of the warrant as soon as possible (if necessary by calling the police department after the arrest has been made).
- If the officer says that a suspect is armed, or otherwise dangerous, or that the officer is in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing suspect, then direct the officer to the appropriate guestroom and step aside, even if the officer does not have a warrant. Here, your prevailing duty is to cooperate with law enforcement officials to ensure the safety of your guests, employees or others.
- As soon as possible after any of the above events, a hotel should contact its management company’s loss prevention or security department, report what happened and forward copies of all warrants presented and documents disclosed.
- In the rare instance in which a police officer threatens force if a hotel does not produce a record that the officer has no authority to demand—regardless of the hotel employee’s response—the management company should consult with legal counsel immediately afterward. Even if a record is produced under these circumstances, it is unlikely that the hotel management company will be found to have cooperated in the officer’s misconduct if, soon afterward, the company sends a carefully-worded letter to the appropriate law enforcement agency explaining the circumstances and objecting to the misconduct.
Robert W. Lannan is an attorney and the Principal of Lannan Legal PLLC, based in Washington. D.C. He advises and represents hotel owners and operators nationwide in a variety of transactions. Mr. Lannan also serves on the faculty of Georgetown University’s Global Hospitality Leadership graduate program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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