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U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments In Text Messaging Case

Just yesterday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Quon text-messaging case.  Interestingly, the Supreme Court may have turned what was formerly a “invasion of privacy” into a “search and seizure” case.

Prior rulings in this case have focused on whether a police officer had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in text messages he sent from a government issued pager.  The police department had a formal policy stating that it could search the police officer’s text messages, but a (non-policymaking) lieutenant announced an informal policy that the department would not review the text messages as long as the officers paid for any overage charges. The lieutenant later changed his mind and searched the police officer’s text messages.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the police officer had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his text messages.  The court reasoned that the lieutenant’s informal policy created a reasonable expectation of privacy for the text messages.

During oral arguments before the Supreme Court, however, the issue seemed to turn to whether the search of the text messages was “reasonable” in light of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  A copy of the transcript of the hearing can be viewed here.

When the Supreme Court accepted certiorari in this case, it raised a lot of speculation as to why the Supreme Court wanted to hear the case.  On the one hand, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is the governing court for all federal courts within the Ninth Circuit court system.  Logically, it would not make sense for the Supreme Court to accept certiorari in the case just to affirm the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

As noted in prior entries about this case, the High Court’s ruling may have far reaching effects on employer’s rights to search company-issued equipment used by employees.  On the other hand, if the Court focuses heavily on the Fourth Amendment issues, there is a chance the Quon ruling is limited to government employees.   We’ll just have to wait for the Court to issue it’s decision, which is expected by Summer 2010.