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Search Of Police Officer’s Text Messages Reasonable

The United States Supreme Court just issued its decision in Quon v. Arch Wireless (S.Ct. June 17, 2010), which dealt with the issue of whether the City of Ontario could search the text messages on alphanumeric pagers it provided to its police officers.  As I predicted in this earlier post, the high Court reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit, and ruled that the search of the police officer’s text messages was reasonable and did not violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

For purposes of its decision, the Court assumed arguendo that the police officer had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his text messages; that the search of his text messages constituted a Fourth Amendment search; and the principles applicable to a government employer’s search of an employee’s physical office apply as well in the electronic sphere.

The Court then noted that the search was motivated by a legitimate work-related purposes, and was not excessive in scope.  Therefore, the search was reasonable and did not violate the police officer’s right to privacy.  The Court explained there were reasonable grounds to ensure that employees were using the alphanumeric pagers for work-related purposes.

The Court also noted that its holding could be applied to the private-employer context.  Specifically, the Court stated that the search, as conducted in this case, was not motivated by a legitimate work-related purposes and was not excessive in scope.  Therefore, the search could be “regarded as reasonable and normal in the private-employer context.”

At the same time, employers should take caution in how they apply the holding in this case to searches they wish to conduct in their own workplaces.  This is because the Court noted that it wanted to avoid establishing “far-reaching premises that define the existence, and extent, of privacy expectations of employees using employer-provided communication devices.”  Therefore, the Court carefully issued its decision on “narrow grounds” and based it on the assumptions, used for the sake of argument, that are noted above.

A copy of the decision can be viewed here.  You can review prior posts on this case here and here.