ACLU Seeks To Protect Privacy of Hotel Guests

News Release: 
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The ACLU is challenging Pierce County’s practice of routinely examining the records of people staying in hotels. The ACLU contends that hotel registration records are private, and that police may not access those records without reasonable suspicion of a crime.

In an amicus brief submitted in State v. Jorden, the ACLU argued that allowing police to search hotel registries without suspicion of a crime violates the privacy guarantees of the Washington Constitution, and sets a dangerous precedent for making other private information public. Oral argument on the case was held before the Washington Supreme Court on Jan. 26, 2006.

“People should be able to stay in a hotel without worrying about being the subject of government tracking, when there is no suspicion of wrongdoing,” said ACLU of Washington Privacy Project Director Doug Klunder, who wrote the amicus brief.

Under the “Lakewood Crime-Free Hotel Motel Program,” the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department routinely views the guest registries at local hotels, and checks names against databases of outstanding warrants. On March 15, 2003, deputies entered Timothy Jorden's room after examining the registry at the Golden Lion Motel and finding outstanding warrants in his name. The deputies found drugs in the room, and arrested Jorden on drug charges.

A trial court convicted Jorden of the drug charges, and his conviction was upheld by the state Court of Appeals. The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to determine whether the Pierce County Sheriff deputies had authority to search hotel registries without suspicion of criminal activity.

The ACLU brief pointed out that giving police blanket access to hotel records could allow the government to keep profiles of people, connecting their information to more than just outstanding warrants.

“Guest registrations at a hotel adjacent to a convention center will have a high correlation with attendees of that convention, revealing the guest’s profession, hobbies or political leanings,” wrote Klunder in the ACLU brief. “Even details of intimate association can be determined from guest registers by examining which people are registered in the same or adjacent rooms.”

The ACLU is concerned that the practice of searching hotel registries without suspicion is spreading. In addition to Lakewood, there have been reports of hotel registry searches in Seattle, Fife and several other cities