Law enforcement must have a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity before they can peruse the names on a hotel guest registry, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that a guest’s presence at a hotel is potentially sensitive and shouldn’t be wide open for law enforcement.
“That such information would be accessible to the government through a fishing expedition, where the hotel guest was a stranger to law enforcement before the officers’ random search, offends our core constitutional principles,” Justice Natalie Hudson wrote for the court’s majority that included Justices Margaret Chutich, David Lillehaug and Paul Thissen.
Chief Justice Laurie Gildea was joined in dissent by Justices G. Barry Anderson and Anne McKeig.
The decision overturned the check forgery conviction of John Thomas Leonard, who allowed police into his Bloomington hotel room in August 2015 after they knocked on his door.
The Bloomington police officers had no warrant and weren’t responding to a call of suspicious activity when they arrived at the hotel and told the desk clerk they wanted to see the guest registry and get the names of any guests who paid in cash.
State law requires hotels and campgrounds to maintain registries that include the names, addresses and vehicle information for all guests and their travel companions. The law requires hotels to provide the registry information to law enforcement.
But the law doesn’t allow police to use the information to use the registries as fishing expeditions without additional suspicion, the court ruled.
In this case, the hotel clerk provided the police with the registry and told them that Leonard had paid cash for six hours in a room.
The officers ran a background check and found Leonard had prior arrests for drugs, firearms and fraud so they knocked on the door of his room. Leonard opened the door and gave them limited consent to search the room - except for his laptop, cell phone and a file folder where several checks were visible, the ruling said.
Police subdued Leonard after he tried to flee and then obtained a search warrant that yielded $2,000 worth of suspicious checks paid to the order of “Spencer Alan Hill,” $5,000 in cash and check-printing paper. Leonard was charged with two counts of check forgery.
The Court of Appeals upheld Leonard’s conviction but the Supreme Court disagreed, saying that “most Minnesotans would be surprised and alarmed if the sensitive location information found in the guest registries at hotels, motels, or RV campsites was readily available to law enforcement without any particularized suspicion of criminal activity.”
Imagine if Leonard had stayed at the hotel to attend a political or religious conference or if he had a medical appointment and diagnosis he wish to keep private, the court said.
“The particular role that hotels play in society makes a guest’s presence at that location sensitive information that warrants privacy protections,” the court said. “We therefore hold that law enforcement officers must at least have reasonable, articulable suspicion to search the sensitive location information in a guest registry.”
The ruling still allows law enforcement to work with hotels to alert law enforcement to activity indicative of illegal sex and drug trafficking, the court noted.
“If such observations provide the officers with reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity, they may examine the sensitive location information found in a guest registry,” the ruling said.
In the dissent, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said Leonard had no reasonable expectation of privacy when he gave his name and address to the front desk.
She noted that the law requiring hotels to collect names and addresses for guests dates to 1937.
“For the past 80 years in Minnesota, law enforcement officers have been able to obtain names and addresses from hotel registries,” she wrote. “This long history confirms that police did nothing unusual here in collecting Leonard’s name and address from the hotel registry, and informs us on what society is prepared to protect as reasonable.”