High Court Protects Privacy of Hotel Guests

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that people do not give up their right to privacy when they check into a hotel.

The court issued a 7-2 decision today on the case of State v. Jorden, overturning the conviction of a man who was arrested following a police sweep of motel guest registries in Lakewood. The Court’s opinion agreed with a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the ACLU of Washington, which argued that searching hotel registries without suspicion of a crime violates the privacy guarantees of the Washington Constitution.

“This is a great victory for privacy rights in Washington state,” said Doug Klunder, director of the ACLU-WA’s Privacy Project, and author of the amicus brief in the case. “This decision ensures that people can stay in a hotel without worrying that their government is collecting information about their personal lives, their travel patterns, or the company they keep.”

Under the “Lakewood Crime-Free Hotel Motel Program,” the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department routinely viewed the guest registries at local hotels, checking names for outstanding warrants. On March 15, 2003, deputies examined the registry at the Golden Lion Motel. After finding outstanding warrants for Timothy Jorden, they entered his room, found drugs, and arrested him. A trial court convicted Jorden, and his conviction was upheld by the state Court of Appeals.

The ACLU brief said police violated Jorden’s right to privacy under the Washington Constitution. The ACLU asserted that hotel registration records are private, and police may not access them without reasonable suspicion of a crime. Giving police blanket access to hotel records could allow the government to learn about all guests’ personal information, not 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.”

Agreeing, the court’s majority opinion said, “The information contained in a motel registry - including one’s whereabouts at the motel - is a private affair under our state constitution, and a government trespass into such information is a search . . . A random, suspicionless search is a fishing expedition, and we have indicated displeasure with such practices on many occasions.”