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The Supreme Court holds that a city's search of a police employee's text messages on a government-issued pager was reasonable and, therefore, did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

July 1, 2010
City of Ontario, California v. Quon, 2010 U.S. LEXIS 4972 (June 17, 2010)

The Supreme Court was tasked with determining whether a government employer's search of an employee's text messages was reasonable or in violation of the Fourth Amendment. There, the police department issued pagers to members of the department's SWAT team. The pagers had the ability to send or receive text messages, and the city's contract with the service provider limited the number of characters the pagers were permitted to use. Mr. Quon was advised on multiple occasions that he exceeded his monthly text message allotment, and Mr. Quon reimbursed the city for the overage. Following more incidents of employees' overage of the text message allotment, the department conducted a review of the employees' text message usage to determine whether the allotment should be raised. After redacting messages sent or received when Mr. Quon was off-duty, it was learned that Mr. Quon sent or received 456 messages during work hours during one month and no more than 57 were work-related. As a result, Mr. Quon was disciplined. In determining whether the city had violated the Fourth Amendment regarding unreasonable search and seizure, the Court acknowledged that a broad holding concerning employees' privacy expectation vis-à-vis employer-provided technological equipment might have future implications and, therefore, they assumed for this case only that (1) Mr. Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the text messages and (2) the city's review constituted a search of the same magnitude as when a government employer searches an employee's physical office. Despite the assumptions, the Court held that the city did not violate the Fourth Amendment. In so holding, the Court reasoned that the search was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose (i.e., determining whether they needed to raise the text message allotment) and was not excessive in scope (they only looked at a small sample of messages that were sent or received during work hours). The one question that the Supreme Court did not answer, however, was whether the government employer's internet/electronic usage policy—which informed the employee that such messages could be searched—would result in the employee not having a reasonable expectation of privacy in messages sent or received on a government-issued electronic device.

Case Law Alert - 3rd Qtr 2010

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