Hotel Registry Ruling Might Shield Airbnb

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SACRAMENTO — A privacy advocacy group says the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling Monday in California v. Patel could make cities' efforts to collect information about short-term housing renters illegal.

In Patel, the high court struck down a Los Angeles law that allowed police to view hotel guest registries without a warrant. John Simpson, the privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, said the same restrictions should apply to cities that want access to short-term rental sites' records to ensure collection of transient occupancy taxes.

"Cities [are] trying to go after the same type of information on the same type of basis," Simpson said. Not paying taxes "is still potentially a criminal violation," he said.

Tyler Newby, a Fenwick & West litigation partner, expressed some skepticism about extending the findings in Patel to home-sharing operations.

"Clearly following Patel you couldn't have a situation where police could go to a platform provider or a popular host and say, 'Show us your list of people who rented in the last three months and show it to us now,' " Newby said. But local ordinances, such as the one recently enacted by the city of Santa Monica, that require quarterly reports of data are "quite a different animal."

"That's a quarterly report not identifying the actual occupants and it's not a situation where authorities could walk into a place of business making demands for records."

Regulating so-called home-sharing businesses has become a hot-button issue in California as cities, counties and the state grapple with the politics of housing, tax collection and a popular, fledgling industry. State legislation that would have required short-term rental housing sites to make confidential quarterly reports on addresses being rented and the prices renters paid for them died in the Senate earlier this month amid opposition from Airbnb Inc., HomeAway Inc., tech lobbies—and Consumer Watchdog.

"We've got no quarrels with the request that folks have to pay taxes, that they have to get a business license. … That's all up to local government to decide," Simpson said. "That's not our fight. We're concerned about the privacy intrusions."

Santa Monica earlier this year placed new restrictions on short-term rentals that require Airbnb and other site operators to disclose to the city about what residences are being rented. A city planning official did not return a message seeking comment about the potential impact of the Patel ruling.

San Francisco is considering several measures—as well as a potential ballot measure—to tighten rules on short-term rentals. One proposal would require platforms to turn over their data.

"Outside of litigation that directly challenges our local laws or their application … we can't speculate publicly about the effects court decisions may have on city policies," said Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

Messages left with Airbnb were not returned.

Contact the reporter at [email protected].

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