The Fourth Amendment is one of the most powerful protections against intrusions into individuals' private lives, and the Supreme Court’s decision this week in City of Los Angeles v. Patel is a reassuring sign that citizens’ ability to rebuff overzealous searches using the Fourth Amendment remains alive and well.

In Patel, the Supreme Court considered a Los Angeles city ordinance that allowed police to walk into a hotel, request a copy of the guest registry, and look through the names of everyone who had checked in—all without a warrant. Naranjibhai and Ramilaben Patel, two Los Angeles hotel owners, challenged the law as authorizing a regime of unconstitutional searches. After considering arguments from the city, the Patels, the Solicitor General, and amici including EFF, the Supreme Court struck down the law as an unconstitutional invasion on the rights of the hotel owners because “it penalizes them for declining to turn over their records without affording them any opportunity for pre-compliance review.”

Hotel searches don’t fall under the “pervasively regulated” exception to the warrant requirement

Under current Fourth Amendment doctrine, most searches require a warrant. If a law authorizes a warrantless search, that search is unreasonable (and therefore unconstitutional) unless it falls into one of a few narrow exceptions. One of those exceptions is for “highly regulated” businesses like alcohol distributors and gun sellers, where the Supreme Court has previously found that the operators have no expectation of privacy and therefore receive less Fourth Amendment protection.

The majority wrote that classifying hotels “as pervasively regulated would permit what has always been a narrow exception to swallow the rule” and refused to do so. Citing the fact that the Court had only found four such industries in the past 45 years, the majority wrote that “[s]imply listing” the industries—distributing alcohol, selling guns, mining, and running an automobile junkyard—effectively “refutes petitioner’s argument” that hotels belonged in the same group. Finding no other justification to allow the Los Angeles system of warrantless records searches, the Court emphasized the lack of “an opportunity to obtain precompliance review before a neutral decisionmaker” and affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s decision to rule in favor of the Patels.

Facial challenges to laws that violate the Fourth Amendment are permitted

Striking down the specific Los Angeles law at issue was important, but the majority also used Patel to answer a much broader question, one that EFF discussed in its amicus brief. When a law violates the Constitution, challengers have two options when they go to convince a court to strike it down. First, they can launch a “facial challenge” to the law as a whole, arguing that it will always be unconstitutional, regardless of how enforcement plays out in practice. Alternatively, challengers can wait and opt for an “as-applied challenge,” arguing that the law is unconstitutional as it relates to their specific situation.

In Patel, the city attempted to convince the Court not only that the Los Angeles law should stand but also that facial challenges on Fourth Amendment grounds should never be allowed. Based largely on some language from Sibron v. New York, a 1968 case where the Court referenced the “concrete factual context of the individual case,” the city took the extreme position that the every challenge to a law on Fourth Amendment grounds had to come with a concrete set of facts.

As EFF pointed out in its amicus brief, however, the Supreme Court has always allowed Fourth Amendment facial challenges. Not only that, but facial challenges have served to protect individual liberty in countless First Amendment, Due Process, and Equal Protection Clause cases as well. EFF argued that as-applied challenges are an inadequate substitute because they are both more expensive and less impactful than the option of launching a facial challenge and striking down a bad law in one fell swoop.

The Court adopted EFF’s position, writing that “facial challenges under the Fourth Amendment are not categorically barred or especially disfavored.” This means that moving forward, individuals like the Patels can continue to identify laws that infringe on their constitutional rights and challenge them in court. It's also good news for EFF's cases about unconstitutional surveillance, since these often take the form of Fourth Amendment facial challenges.