Hotels Relax Privacy Policies as Government Pushes for Access

By AMANDA BRONSTAD
Staff Reporter

Hotel operators, responding to wider powers granted federal investigators following the terrorist attacks, have dropped traditional objections to releasing guest information to authorities.

Though such requests are still infrequent, one area hotel manager said they have increased four-fold since Sept. 11, 2001.

Officials in the Los Angeles and national offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to confirm the increase, saying that such disclosure would compromise pending investigations. But many hotel managers, especially those near LAX, said inquiries were up and they expected more in the future.

The 2001 Patriot Act, passed a month after the terrorist attacks, gives federal investigators the right to obtain a warrant for "tangible" objects such as guest logs, records and other documents from all businesses, including hotels, said Cheryl Mimura, spokeswoman for the FBI's L.A. office. Before its passage, investigators could only issue warrants for a guest's telephone and financial records.

Heightened sensitivities to terrorist threats have increased local hotel managers' communications with law enforcement agencies.

Nelson Zager, general manager of the Crowne Plaza Los Angeles Airport, said after war broke out against Iraq the hotel set up a hotline to the Los Angeles Police Department to report problems or obtain information.

But, he added, calling the local police now means federal authorities may arrive.

In a recent incident, guests of the Crowne Plaza voiced concerns to management about a guest in the pool area who was making anti-American remarks. Zager said he called local police and investigators identifying themselves as CIA agents arrived the same day.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association issued advisories last year to its members on the Patriot Act, including under what circumstances a subpoena can be avoided. Many hotel managers are still reviewing those rules as part of their operations procedures.

The added pressure to release data has put hotel owners in the uncomfortable position of compromising a guest's privacy in the name of national security.

"We absolutely don't want to do anything that would violate anyone's individual rights, to make anyone feel their privacy is invaded," said Jordan Norburn, legal manager of San Clemente-based Sunstone Hotel Investors LLC, which owns four hotels in L.A. County. "In the same respect, we're attempting to cooperate with any mandates that government officials give us."

In the January issue of Corporate Counsel magazine, Madeleine Kleiner, executive vice president and general counsel of Beverly Hills-based Hilton Hotels Corp., was quoted as saying that "after 9/11, government agencies wanted to know who stayed where and when. Our policy was not to give out that information unless we had a formal legal request. Then we were barraged by different agencies."

Kleiner did not return calls for additional comment.

Zager said requests for guest information by the government have increased to about four per year, up from one a year before 9/11.

Soon after the attacks, he said, two FBI agents wanted to review the surveillance cameras of the Crowne Plaza to find an individual who had been in the hotel lobby. He said the agents told him that a bomb threat had been phoned in from the lobby.

"We've had the FBI and a number of different entities far more interested in guests," Zager said. "They're interested in knowing an address on a registration card, where they're from, a telephone number, or anything that tries to verify who the person may be."

Paving the way

Many hotels have eased the way for inquiries by police agencies by no longer requiring subpoenas in certain circumstances, given the urgent nature of terrorist investigations, said Jim Abrams, president and chief executive of the California Hotel & Lodging Association.

In general, guest registration records can be issued to federal authorities without a warrant or subpoena, but require valid identification or cause, he said.

Hotel owners can still request a warrant or subpoena for guest registration records, which typically only include a name, address and phone number. Most said they would never give out financial records, such as a credit card number, without a warrant.

But the Patriot Act presumably gives them added protection against claims of civil rights violations, so some have chosen not to demand court authorization in certain circumstances.

"We probably would not have done that in the past," said Zager, who no longer requires a warrant for guest registration information, other than financial records. "From a security standpoint, it's the nature of being at the airport. They need to move quickly on those things."

In the past few months, local laws have required even more privacy breaches on the part of hotels. Norburn, whose company operates 80 hotels nationwide, said new ordinances in Virginia and New Jersey have forced her East Coast managers to require a photo identification when guests check in. If the guest refuses, the hotel will alert county and state authorities.

She said some guests have objected to the new rules.

"Now they're on the defensive, saying, 'Why do you need that?' They're questioning us," she said. "But I know there probably is a lot more interest on the part of government agencies as to who is traveling about the country, and I'm sure certain groups are targeted more than other groups. In some instances, their concerns are valid."

The city of Los Angeles has a municipal code ordinance that requires hotels to register the name of the guest, the date of check-in and the room number. Norburn said hotel managers in L.A. cannot require guests to display photo identification.

Traditionally, hotel guests in California assume a reasonable right to privacy, said James Butler, partner and chairman of the global hospitality group at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro LLP, and hotel owners violate that right to privacy at their own peril, usually in the form of civil rights lawsuits.

But there is no absolute right to privacy in a hotel, he said. Under normal circumstances, guests relinquish some privacy by allowing hotel employees to clean their rooms. In matters of security, privacy rights are further eroded, he said.

"Innkeepers breach privacy to cooperate with firefighters, police and the FBI," Butler said. The breach, he said, is being widened with heightened concerns about terrorism.

Brian Rishwain, a plaintiff's attorney and partner at Johnson & Rishwain LLP, said case law limits the privacy of hotel guests, but at the same time increased government access to personal records increases the chances personal information could end up becoming public.

"Ultimately, a lot of governmental information finds its way into public places through the Freedom of Information Act," he said.

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