Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds Police Chief's Right to Search Employee's Text Messages

Supreme Court building

It might be a landmark decision, but privacy advocates aren't going to like it. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that an Ontario, CA police chief did not violate the 4th amendment (unreasonable search) in reading his employee's sexually explicit text messages.

The employee used a device supplied by his employer, which is the only reason the case went to court. Apparently, only a tiny percentage of the texts sent and received by the Ontario police officers were work-related, and the chief decided to do some investigation to see if his workers were slacking off. He discovered a whole mess of sexually explicit communication between Sgt. Jeff Quon and a variety of lady friends.

I should also mention at this point that the device in question is repeatedly referred to as a pager. This brings to mind both the technologically backward and likely underfunded nature of local police equipment, and Liz Lemon's sometime-boyfriend Dennis on 30 Rock (the "Beeper King" who utters the immortal protestation in defense of beepers: "Technology is cyclical!"). That's only tangentially related, but still: pagers?

The court ruled, overturning a prior decision, that the chief's search did not violate the 4th amendment. Said Justice Kennedy, because the search "was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose and because it was not excessive in scope, the search was reasonable." This has wide-reaching implications for every public employee in the country--better start monitoring your computers and phones, because your employer is now legally allowed to search your stuff if he has a "legitimate work-related purpose."

What do you guys think? A blow for personal privacy? Or does Sgt. Quon deserve it (really, who sexts on a work-provided pager? Or on a pager?)?

Photo by dbaron.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in San Francisco (no link for that one--you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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  • Louann Oravec

    It was a work related cell phone taxpayers paid for; so yes I agree, it just like company emails should be searchable. A personal cell phone is a totally different item.