Hotel Searches: Privacy Checked at Front Desk

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

In Fife in Pierce County, police officers repeatedly have threatened desk clerks at two hotels with citations unless they immediately produce registration information for all guests – even though there is no suspicion that any guest is involved in criminal activity.

The ACLU is trying to put the kibosh on such warrantless police searches of hotel registries in Fife and elsewhere. Suspicionless searches strike at people’s right to travel freely and violate protections against unreasonable governmental intrusion into one’s private affairs.

In May the ACLU asked the Washington Supreme Court to review a state appeals court ruling (in State v. Jorden) that random hotel registry searches do not invade privacy because checking into a hotel is a public act (so much for secret trysts!). We pointed out that the location of a person’s hotel may provide sensitive information about a guest’s financial status, medical conditions, or political leanings. If there indeed is no privacy interest in hotel records, law enforcement could conceivably gather the records to compile a statewide database of hotel stays that would reveal a detailed picture of a person’s travels and meetings with others.

ACLU-WA Privacy Project Director Doug Klunder wrote the ACLU’s amicus brief, which was submitted jointly with a Fife hotel owner.