Review of Racy Text Messages Was Not Unreasonable, Rules High Court

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The United States Supreme Court has ruled in the case of a California police officer who was disciplined for sending sexually explicit text messages on his government-issued text pager—and it has ruled in favor of the police department that searched those messages.

Ontario, California police Sgt. Jeff Quon had claimed that his privacy was violated when the chief of police ordered a review of pager transcripts after he grew tired of officers exceeded the texting limits. Quon and his colleagues paid for the overages out of their own pockets, but the officials said they ordered the review “to determine whether the city’s monthly character limit was insufficient to cover business-related messages.”

What they found was that Quon had been using the two-way wireless device to send personal messages to his wife, his fellow officer and his girlfriend—some of which were sexual in nature. In one month, the sergeant sent and received 456 messages while on duty, only 50 or so of which were deemed work-related. Quon then sued, claiming that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the device, despite the fact that it was issued by his employer. His attorneys cited the Fourth Amendment, which guards against “unreasonable search and seizure,” a tenet that has previously been upheld by courts in cases regarding private communications that are transmitted through public channels.

The Supreme Court, however, said that the search was justified by its business-related nature, combined with the fact that the pagers were government property, and therefore “did not violate Quon’s Fourth Amendment rights.”

“Because the search was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose, and because it was not excessive in scope, the search was reasonable,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy. The decision of the justices was unanimous.

Quon and his fellow officers had signed a statement acknowledging their understanding of the police department’s “Computer Usage, Internet and E-mail Policy,” which stated that using electronic methods of communication in a personal context was a violation of city policy. Yet city employees have argued that the reality was more lax, allowing them to use the texting devices as they liked, as long as they paid for their overage charges

Quon’s lawsuit alleging invasion of privacy will most likely be dismissed by lower courts; additionally, he is expected to face disciplinary action from the department.

“The court also concludes that the search would be regarded as reasonable and normal in the private-employer context,” added Kennedy.

 

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