Does Checking In Mean You Check Your Privacy at the Door?


Hotel/motel privacy policies and the laws surrounding them have come under scrutiny after several recent high-profile incidents. Bruno Levesque/IP3/Getty Images

You might think that a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your hotel or motel room doorknob guarantees that you'll be left alone. But since a gunman on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas reportedly hung such a sign on his door for three days in October 2017 before opening fire on a music festival and killing 58 people, some hospitality chains are altering their practices.

At hotels in the Hilton chain, for example, if a "Do Not Disturb" sign is on a door for 24 hours, the hotel's security or duty manager is notified, in order to check on the guest.

"Guest privacy and welfare are a top priority at Hilton," a company spokesperson explains in an email. "We regularly review and update our policies and procedures to align with the latest industry standards. We have long had Do Not Disturb procedures in place, and at the end of [2017] updated our policy to provide Team Members with additional guidance on how best to address the welfare of our guests and status of our rooms. This guidance was provided to help properties protect guest privacy, but also manage suspicious activity and any concerns about a guest's welfare."

Several hotels at Walt Disney World in Florida reportedly got rid of "Do Not Disturb" signs altogether, replacing them with "Room Occupied" signs, and informed guests that the hotel and its staff had the right to enter rooms, the Orlando Sentinel and other news outlets reported.

Make Yourself At Home?

Those sorts of changes are reminders that when you stay in a hotel or motel, you shouldn't necessarily expect to have the same degree of privacy that you enjoy in your own home. Hospitality law experts explain that while hotels and motels want guests to feel comfortable, they still own the property, and also have an interest in protecting their employees and other guests. In some instances, property owners also might cooperate with police and other law enforcement agencies by turning over information about who's staying with them.

"You have to keep in mind, in the hotel guest relationship, the guests do not own the hotel room as they do their homes or cars," Stephen Barth, an attorney and professor of hospitality law at the University of Houston, explains. "They have been licensed by the hotel to use this space."

According to Barth, hotels and motels have good reason to be wary about what guests might do on their premises. "This conversation didn't just come up because of Las Vegas," he says. "This has been brewing for many years because of meth labs, prostitution and other illegal activity going on in hotel rooms. Human trafficking is on the radar as well. Hotels have been diligently trying to address those issues."

Sometimes, that means going into a person's room. While some guests might assume that DND signs block hotel staff from entering, Barth says that in legal terms, the sign really amounts only to a request that hotels aren't obligated to follow.

That's not to say that you shouldn't have any expectation of privacy in a hotel or motel. You have a right, for example, not to be spied upon while you're undressing. After a stalker shot video of ESPN sports reporter Erin Andrews through a peephole in her door in 2008, a jury found both him and the hotel management company liable and awarded her $55 million in damages, according to CNN.

How much privacy a guest can expect "largely depends upon where in the hotel they are," Greg Duff, principal and chairman of the Seattle-based law firm of Garvey Schubert Barer and author of the Duff on Hospitality Law blog, explains in an email. "In public spaces, little to none. In hotel rooms, a considerable amount."

Who Knows I'm Here?

When it comes to information on guest ledgers, Duff says that hotels generally won't provide that to anyone else, unless you give permission or there are exigent circumstances such as a threat of harm to hotel guests or employees, or a law enforcement officer shows up with a search warrant issued by a judge to obtain the information. In a 2015 decision, Los Angeles v. Patel, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a Los Angeles city ordinance that required hotels to turn over guest lists to police without a warrant.

In September 2017, the Motel 6 chain issued an apology on Twitter after some motels in the Phoenix area provided daily guest lists to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities, as first reported upon by the Phoenix New Times. The chain issued a directive to its 1,400 U.S. locations banning the practice. In January 2018, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against the chain, saying that motels in Washington had turned over information on more than 9,000 guests to ICE without warrants.

The information released by Motel 6 included not only guest room numbers and guest identification numbers, but also their dates of birth, driver's license numbers and license plate numbers. The release of this information violated the chain's own privacy policy as well as the Consumer Protection Act. In an email, a Motel 6 spokesperson affirmed the ban on turning over such information to ICE and says that "Motel 6 takes this matter very seriously, and we have and will continue to fully cooperate with the Office of the State Attorney General."


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