In a remarkably swift turnaround — no doubt prompted by some media backlash — the Warwick, RI, police department has announced it will no longer be accepting late night guest list faxes from Motel 6.
Police Chief Stephen M. McCartney has discontinued the short-lived practice of accepting a copy of the Motel 6 daily guest list to see if any of the lodgers should be investigated.
He said he was concerned about the legal ramifications of the practice, including the possibility that the list could become a public record under the state’s Access to Public Records Act. He said an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the city also would have been possible.
“The information is sensitive,” McCartney acknowledged Friday. “All we’re doing is raising a lot of eyebrows about things that we quite frankly don’t need to have.”
It should be noted that the Warwick PD never asked for this information in the first place. This was all on Motel 6, with an assist from Mayor Scott Avedisian. While there were concerns about criminal activity at the motel, it appeared to be mayoral and council pressure that prompted Motel 6’s move, rather than demands from the police department.
It was Mayor Avedisian who smugly announced “We know everyone who is staying in the motel tonight,” and it was Mayor Avedisian who was hoping to use Motel 6’s obsequiousness as leverage to obtain similar nightly lists from other hotels and motels in the area. But it appears all of that is now off the table. If the police aren’t going to accept or use the lists, what’s the point in making anyone send these over?
The mayor — who immediately claimed the faxed guest list was already leading to arrests — has his assertion toned down by the police chief when he stated his department wasn’t actually running criminal background checks on guest names.
On April 14, Mayor Scott Avedisian reported that there had been four arrests on undisclosed charges arising from the motel having provided the guest list. On Friday, McCartney qualified that statement, saying that the arrests over nine or 10 days might or might not have been the result of checking the list.
Receiving the information would have allowed the police to inquire about each name in their own records or in criminal databases, but McCartney said that since the policy was announced, that had not been done.
“I was collecting the data but I was not doing anything with it,” he disclosed.
The police still retain the privilege of stopping by and taking a look at the guest list whenever it wants to — something similarly enjoyed by police departments across the nation. This warrantless access to motel records is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court, but for now, these are still nothing more than “business records” afforded no expectation of privacy thanks to the Third Party Doctrine.
The policy going forward will be checking on motel guests lists only when there’s a “reasonable suspicion” that a guest may be wanted for or involved in criminal activity, which is certainly more protective of guests’ privacy than running guests lists against criminal databases every 24 hours.
The Motel 6 has also posted a sign notifying potential guests that their information may be turned over to law enforcement, something that may encourage criminals to stay elsewhere and give the privacy-conscious heads up that renting a room nullifies a lot of privacy expectations.