Patel: Right Result, Wan Rationale

Making short work of the idea that facial challenges aren’t available under the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled today in Los Angeles v. Patel that a city may not require its hotels to turn over their business records without some opportunity for review of the government’s demands. It’s the right result, but the Court was too quiet about its treatment of Fourth Amendment doctrine, and it did not take the opportunity to fully address situations like the case presented, in which the government dragoons private businesses into surveillance on its behalf.

Justice Sotomayor, writing for a 5-4 majority, held: “the provision of the Los Angeles Municipal Code that requires hotel operators to make their registries available to the police on demand is facially unconstitutional because it penalizes them for declining to turn over their records without affording them any opportunity for pre-compliance review.” Justice Scalia led one bloc of dissenters believing it was reasonable to institute this kind of regulation on business owners suspected of no substantive crime because their facilities are sometimes used for crime. Justice Alito dissented as well, arguing that there should be no facial challenge to the statute because constitutional applications of it exist.

Had the stars lined up, the Court might have used the Patel case to address simmering issues around current Fourth Amendment doctrine, as the Cato Institute’s brief for the Court suggested. The Court indeed eschewed the backward “reasonable expectation of privacy” test, which finds that Fourth Amendment interest exists when people reasonably feel that it does. It instead examined whether the government’s scheme was reasonable, which is where the language of the Fourth Amendment focuses courts’ attention. But the Court did not broadcast the inapplicability of “reasonable expectation” doctrine, so most lawyers and lower courts will probably not realize that another in a growing line of cases is applying the Fourth Amendment in a new and better way, by hewing more closely to the text.

Part of the reason the Court didn’t take all the constitutional bait was the unusually narrow challenge the hoteliers brought. They attacked the collection of information by the government, granting for the sake of argument in this case that the government has the power to require them to collect information about their customers for the government’s later use. Had the Court considered the totality of what we called “the warrantless search scheme,” it would have had to assess whether it is reasonable in our constitutional system for private businesses to be dragooned into wholesale, comprehensive surveillance on behalf of the government. That scope might have brought the Court’s conservatives off the sidelines and into defending the degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted. (Surely, the government couldn’t have conscripted businesses into mass surveillance of the public at the time of the framing.)

Folks who are paying attention will recognize that the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test continues to recede in importance. We will continue to wait, though, for the case that clearly and articulately applies the right against unreasonable seizures and searches to information as such. While Patel is a technical win, some later case or cases will have to truly address how the Fourth Amendment is to be administered in the modern era.