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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules Against Cop Claiming Privacy Rights in Text Messages

Posted Jun 17, 2010 9:27 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S Supreme Court has found no Fourth Amendment violation in a search of a police-department issued pager that revealed a police officer’s steamy text messages.

The Supreme Court said the search of Jeffrey Quon's pager was justified because there were was a legitimate work-related rationale. The goal was to determine whether the wireless contract was sufficient and whether the city was paying for extensive personal communications.

The court was unanimous in the result, although two justices wrote concurring opinions, SCOTUSblog reports. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the case, City of Ontario v. Quon.

The court said it was disposing of the case on narrow grounds, since a broad holding “might have implications for future cases that cannot be predicted.”

The court said it was assuming for the case that Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the text messages, that the review of the messages was a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and that the same principles applying to physical searches of a government employee’s office also apply to an electronic search.

Quon had signed an acknowledgment that he had no expectation of privacy when using computers or other devices issued by the city, but his supervisor had told officers their personal text messages sent on city pagers wouldn’t be audited if they paid when their usage exceeded monthly limits.

“The court must proceed with care when considering the whole concept of privacy expectations in communications made on electronic equipment owned by a government employer,” Kennedy wrote in the opinion (PDF). “The judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear. …

“Prudence counsels caution before the facts in the instant case are used to establish far-reaching premises that define the existence, and extent, of privacy expectations enjoyed by employees when using employer-provided communication devices.”

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